In-ear Headphone review of:
Thinksound Rain 9mm high definition headphone
Arctic Sound E 352 earbuds
Arctic Sound E 351 earbuds
If you’re in the market for earphones, repeat after me:
"I will trust my own ears."
"I will find out what the seller’s return policy is."
These warnings are not to be taken lightly. Many companies selling earphones or earbuds will tell you their products have a frequency response of such-and-such and impedance of X number of ohms, and so on. The numbers will vary by manufacturer. Remember that what’s important is that if you’re like most consumers, you have no idea what all the electronic specifications mean. If you ask a sales rep, they may tell you the numbers mean the sound will be lean and forward and they’ll provide good performance across a wide range. On rare occasions they actually know what they’re talking about.
The only meaningful test of good earphones, however, is how they feel in your ears and how they sound. That’s why you want to buy from a place with a liberal return policy. If you haven’t damaged the product and it’s simply a matter of discovering that the audio quality is not to your liking, you ought to be able to return it without any hassles.
You should also remind yourself what types of music you listen to most often. As you will read below, earphones that are fine for one type of music may perform poorly with other types of music. A knowledgeable sales rep can tell you which earphones may be best for you if you let him or her know what your preferences are. I wouldn’t place much confidence in the marketing hype that appears on the product’s package. And don’t be swayed by the non-sound related trinkets such as the attractive carrying cases that come with both Arctic Sound earphones reviewed below. I often store earbuds in a Ziploc bag and am yet to damage anything.
The points I’ve made above are best illustrated in the three earphones discussed below. Readers should also keep in mind that at the recommended retail prices of these products, you can find numerous other earphones that are at least as good and sometimes far superior to those discussed in these reviews. Like most earphones, all of these can be used with an iPhone or Blackberry. Only one of these sets, the Arctic Sound 351 earbuds, comes with a built in microphone.
Thinksound Rain 9mm high definition headphone
These attractive earbuds, the best of the three products under consideration, are very comfortable and reproduce music with remarkable clarity. After listening to them for a few days, I was impressed by their purity and balance across the full spectrum.
I don’t believe they’ll please those who like the kind of bass that makes your car vibrate, but for almost every other kind of music I found voices and instruments as faithfully projected as though I were listening to a pair of high end Polk speakers. This is not intended to suggest that the bass is tepid or that the overall sound is tinny. Just the opposite is true. The bass is present but it’s clean. You won’t need to fiddle with an equalizer to make it palatable.
At the other end of the spectrum, the highs are so sweet that I found myself describing them to others with a word I never use: charming.
People who listen to classical voice recordings find themselves looking forward to specific features in the score. For example, they will anticipate and listen for the high B flat in a famous tenor aria from Puccini’s La Boheme, two high Ds back to back from Verdi’s Rigoletto, a string of punishing high Cs from Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment. With the wrong earbuds, these notes can be absolutely painful to hear. Not with Rain. All of these notes came through crisp and with a ringing clarity but with no edges, very similar to how you would hear them from an orchestra seat in the concert hall.
I listen to a wide variety of genres but spend most of my time with the classical music I grew up with. If I’m listening to a piece by Mozart or Brahms, the chances are good that I’ve heard it performed by at least 20 different orchestras or ensembles, and yet with these Rain earbuds I found a whole new way to appreciate the music.
For those who care about appearances, these earbuds will not disappoint. The design is understated and classy. The drivers are enclosed in a handsome 9mm wood chassis attached to silver tips, and you’ll find three extra sets of silicon tips in the box along with a homely sack made from some kind recyclable material. All I really cared about was the sound.
Though the MSRP is $99, the Thinksound Rain earbuds are selling on Amazon for $59.
Thinksound reports that users are finding that the quality of the sound improves after a 24-48 hour break-in period, which definitely coincided with my experience. If you want all the technical details about frequency response and so forth, go the company’s website, at http://thinksound.com. Otherwise, just get a pair and give your brain a few days to adjust to a new experience in listening pleasure.
Arctic Sound E 352 earbuds
The big selling point for these earphones, at least from the company’s standpoint, is that the drivers are encased in wood. The wood looks nice and supposedly enhances the bass response, a claim I could not substantiate after listening to a wide variety of music.
The earbuds have no Left and Right markings and no explanation for that lack in the packaging. I contacted a representative who said there is no Left and Right because both sides produce identical sound. One sentence on the package would have cleared up that mystery. [Editor's note: "identical sound" still confuses the situation. We'll try to obtain a better reason.]
I found these earbuds physically and aurally uncomfortable after an hour or less. They produce clean, lifelike reproduction of some music in the mid-range, which is to say most popular music, jazz, rap and similar categories. They are not appropriate for symphonic music, opera or any music that covers a broad spectrum of sound. They are generally well-defined but unexceptional in the middle of the register but fall apart as the music becomes more complex or stretches to the higher end of the staff. They’re not absolutely horrible but the lack of refinement in the high notes is noticeable enough to be annoying.
I also gave them to an adult friend who listens to Hip Hop and similar styles of music. Her reaction? "I like my $20 earphones better."
I tried these earbuds with each of the three different sized included silicon tips to see if the sound improved with a better seal in the ear canal. Sensitivity in the middle and lower registers did indeed improve slightly but not in the upper. In short, the E 352 earbuds are probably fine for computer games and popular music, but not a great choice for symphonic or operatic music.
Arctic Sound E351-WM (with microphone)
The 351 earphones cost about a third less than the 352s, so it should come as no surprise that they don’t sound as good. But in this case it’s a matter of splitting hairs. The more expensive 352 earphones were one-third higher in price, but most of the time there was no proportional improvement in sound. In some cases, however, the 351s seemed to suck the oxygen out of a performance and the difference between the two products was definitely noticeable.
In place of the wood barrels in the 352s, the 351s have large driver coils encased in an attractive aluminum chassis. They come with an integrated microphone so you can plug them into an iPhone, put the phone aside and talk hands free. Like the more expensive model, the 351 comes with three sets of different sized soft tips for noise cancellation and better sound.
Both are best when processing notes an octave above or below middle C. After that, results are mixed, though the 351 is even scratchier at the upper end than the buds with the wood chassis. On the plus side, the cord on the cheaper earphones if about three inches longer than the others, making it slightly easier to use when connected to a computer.
There was no "Aha!" moment with either of these earphones.
Thinksound Rain — MyMac Review Rating: 8 out of 10
Arctic Sound E352 — MyMac Review Rating: 3 out of 10
Arctic Sound E351 WM — MyMac Review Rating: 2 out of 10