I’ve been interested in finding some good headphones for use on my motorcycle for a while now, but have found there are just so many options out there that it’s often hard to determine what to purchase.  Furthermore, the fit of the earbud style headphones is so critical to good sound quality, that what might be awesome for one person will sound like crap to another person.  That’s why I’ve decided to do this earbud shootout, so that I can directly compare several sets of earbuds against each other and determine what would work best for my needs.  Those needs are specifically:  Sound Isolation, ability to retain sound quality at higher volumes, and a good fit and function inside a motorcycle helmet.  Finally, since these headphones are going to see lots of use and abuse going in and out of my ears, and in and out of pockets a lot, there is a high probability of wire damage over time.  Due to this likelihood I also evaluated projected durability, and kept all headphone prices around $50 purchase price so that they could be economically replaced in the future.

Let’s get on with the shootout!

Earbud style headphones used in this review:

Skullcandy INK’D (I’ve had these for awhile and wanted to include them as an overall good and inexpensive baseline)

Driver Unit 11mm

Frequency Response 20-20,000Hz

Nominal Impedance ?

Sensitivity ?

Cord Length 4.2ft

MSRP $19.95 (Amazon.com as them for $11.49)

JVC HAFX66B Air Cushion

Driver Unit 8.5mm

Frequency Response 10-23,000Hz

Nominal Impedance 16ohms

Sensitivity 101dB

Cord Length 3.28ft

MSRP $29.95  (Amazon.com has them for $17.50)

V-Moda Faze Audio

Driver Unit 9mm

Frequency Response 18-22,000Hz

Nominal Impedance ?

Sensitivity ?

Cord Length 2.6ft

MSRP $35.95  (I got mine from Costco for $25 with the $10 instant rebate)

 

Klipsch Image S2

Driver Unit “Full Range KG 15” (can’t be directly compared to others in this test)

Frequency Response 12-18,000Hz

Nominal Impedance 18ohms

Sensitivity 106db

Cord Length 2.6ft

MSRP $49.99 (Amazon.com as them for $49.00)

Ultimate Ears MetroFi 220

For an earbud that is supposed to be designed by studio engineers, they make it impossible to find any actual specifications (none on their website, on the packaging, or in the documentation), which is a real disappointment.

Driver Unit ?

Frequency Response ?

Nominal Impedance ?

Sensitivity ?

Cord Length about 3ft

MSRP $79.99  (Amazon.com has them for $66.99)


Subjective Testing Criteria:

I’m a firm believer that manufacturer specs aren’t really worth much weight other than general product to product comparison.  There seems to be little oversight or control on what manufacturers say about their products and how those “lab based specifications” actually translate to the real world.  That why I’m going to do a rather intensive subjective set of comparison tests.

My rating scale is (1-5) with 1 being Poor, and 5 being Excellent.

All headphones have been “broken in” for a minimum of 1 hour at high (but not distorting) volume levels, so that their internal mechanics will be normalized and the subjective testing will be more in line with what should be expected for lifetime use.  Each set of earbud headphones has been experimented with to find the best fit in the ear canal using the provided earbud cushions.  (Based on testing thus far I seem to have small to average ear canal size and generally find the medium sized ear cushions offer the best seal)      Testing was done strictly with .mp3 files and songs with Variable Bit Rates sampled at 192kbps.  Testing was performed on my old iPod Nano.  Low volume testing was done at approximately 25% volume.  High Volume testing was done at approximately 85% volume. I generally use about 75%-80% volume for normal use.  The iPod EQ was turned off as was the Sound Check feature.  All high volume tests included a 2 hour rest period in between tests for my hearing to normalize again.

Songs Used for Testing:

Nine Inch Nails “Right Where It Belongs” This song has some nice layering that is easy to pick up on through the simplicity of the instruments used.  (All the headphones did a good job reproducing this song)

Imogen Heap “Hide and Seek” This is a very dynamic song, and the challenge is to clearly pick out the soft echoes after certain phrases and rain in the background, and retain driver composure at volume peaks.  (Only the V-Moda and Klipsch were able to do justice to this composition)

The Shins “Past and Pending” This song is very mellow, with a nice ambience, and on good headphones you get a feeling of the room’s reverb where they recorded it and can pick out the vibration of the guitar strings on the bridge. The tambourine is also a good treble test, as at high volumes on some of the headphones it can sound quite harsh.  (While all headphones played this song adequately, the Klipsch and V-Moda were again able to present more of the hidden dynamics).

Hybrid “Choke” This is the real power mix for this group of songs.  It is very electronic with bass that has a very deep character, which most earbud headphones won’t be able to detail due to their limited driver size and struggle to reproduce the very low frequencies.  (The Klipsch headphones were the true winner on this song having an overall excellent sound at high volume, and not developing any of the harshness that most of the others did during the high treble portions of the song)

Subjective Testing Results:

JVC HAFX66B Air Cushion

Low Volume:                         2

High Volume:                        3 (They get loud, but can start to get overwhelmed)

Bass:                                      1 (Due to the design, these really don’t go into your ear canal or seal well, so the bass gets dropped)

Midrange:                              4

Treble:                                   3 (It’s there and balanced well with midrange, but can quickly get too peaky which hurts your ears)

Seal/Noise Isolation:            2

Cable Transduction:             3

Presence/Dynamic Range:  1

Projected Durability:             2 (very thin wires, speaker grill came out)

Comments/Observations:    I was interested in the different bud design of these units, and believed they would be a good comfort fit.  The sound quality is ok, but the design prevents a good seal, which hurts these earbuds.

Summary:                             I was disappointed with the build quality, and lack of sealing characteristics, despite trying all the different bud adapters.

(Picture below shows where the tissue like speaker grill pulled right out while switching bud adapters)

 

Skullcandy INK’D

Low Volume:                          3

High Volume:                         3 (They get loud, but can start to get overwhelmed, showing as muddy bass and peaky treble)

Bass:                                       2

Midrange:                               4

Treble:                                    3 (It’s there and balanced well with midrange, but can quickly get too peaky which hurts your ears)

Seal/Noise Isolation:            3

Cable Transduction:             2

Presence/Dynamic Range:  1

Projected Durability:            3

Comments/Observations:  Good build quality, have good overall sound.  They can get overwhelmed at higher volumes and lose the balanced sound they are capable of.  These can sound loud to those around you.

Summary:                             A great option for those looking for a cheap set of earbuds that is of overall good quality.

V-Moda Faze Audio

Low Volume:                         4

High Volume:                        4

Bass:                                      3 (Bass is present, and tight, probably the best of the “outer canal” set here, but can’t come close to the Klipsch)

Midrange:                              5 (Best of this group, balanced with treble, and not overpowered by bass)

Treble:                                   4

Seal/Noise Isolation:             3

Cable Transduction:             2

Presence/Dynamic Range:  3

Projected Durability:             3

Comments/Observations:   I wasn’t expecting much from a Costco set of earbuds, and this company appears to be very “flashy” and into design, which I’ve found often means you’re paying more for marketing than product. Dynamics are quite good on these, though the treble can get a bit bright for some songs.

Summary:                             I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how good these sound, and at the $25 I paid for them, they can’t be beat for the price!

Ultimate Ears MetroFi 220

Low Volume:                         3

High Volume:                        3 (They get extremely loud, but when compared to the others in this test it is harsh and too bright)

Bass:                                      2 (Likely from poor seal, if good seal would guess a 4 because the drivers are big)

Midrange:                              5

Treble:                                  3 (Plenty of it, but can get harsh)

Seal/Noise Isolation:            1 (poor seal)

Cable Transduction:             1 (Thick cable transfers sound easily)

Presence/Dynamic Range:  2

Projected Durability:            5 (Thick cables)

Comments/Observations:   Poor seal (even though I tried all the included ear pieces), likely making the sound poorer than it could be.  These are fairly loud for others around you (Likely because of the largest drivers of this set).  If I ever bothered to use one of the supplied carrying cases it would be this one, as I like the size and design of the hard plastic case included with the Ultimate Ears.  I also like how the right earbud uses red plastic so it is easy to know which ear is which (because if you put them in backwards your music might play in reverse) 😉

Summary:                             If you have large ear canals, and have less than average hearing you make like these as they can get very loud and if you achieve a good seal the quality of the bass would be much improved.  Also the thick cables and rugged design make these look like they would last a long time.

Klipsch Image S2

Low Volume:                         2  (High impedance, needs more power?)

High Volume:                        5  (Maintain their composure even to loud levels)

Bass:                                         5

Midrange:                              3

Treble:                                   4

Seal/Noise Isolation:             4

Cable Transduction:             1 (Deep in ear canal, picks up sound easily)

Presence/Dynamic Range:  5

Projected Durability:             3 (Good construction, but I’m concerned about thin wires and how they stick out of my ears)

Comments/Observations:  Bass is amazingly deep, and warm sounding (Klipsch has always impressed me with their ability to design setups with warm full bass).  The midrange gets overwhelmed by the lower bass frequencies, but the treble is nice and clean.  They do stick out of my ears quite a bit compared to the others, so we’ll see if that causes a problem with the motorcycle helmet.

Summary:  I’m rather enamored with these earbuds!  The quality of sound is dramatically better than the others in this set, and I expect much of that is due to the nature of this design and how it sits deeper in the ear canal and seals better.  The bass in these is well tuned, and you actually “feel” it in your head, as though your ear canals have little subwoofers in them.  I do wish the midrange was more present, but overall am amazed with these headphones.

On the Motorcycle:

The important headphone characteristics for use on the motorcycle are:  Fit in the ear (seal), fit in the helmet (don’t break the seal), cable transduction (good seal and cable knocking around means easy cable noise), and finally where the port for the earbud is and how your helmet flows air.  On all earbud headphones (that I’ve seen thus far), you’ll find some holes for speaker porting.  These may be on the back, sides, underneath.

With my Icon Domain 2 Serpecant helmet, I actually get a lot of air flowing past my ears, even with all the vents closed.  Due to this, I’ve learned that any earbuds that have their ports on the back (or outside edge) will be more prone to picking up a lot of that wind noise.  The earbuds in this review that have ports on the back are the Skullcandy and Ultimate Ears.  The JVC have the port on the inside, however, due to the design it may just as well be on the back, as it picks up a ton of wind noise.  The V-Moda and Klipsch have their ports on the inside underneath, so this helps avoid this particular issue.

I performed this testing on my naked SV650, so there is virtually no wind blocking available from the bike.  Between the rather loud helmet and lack of wind screen on the bike, this testing presents a worst case scenario for wind noise.  All headphones were ok up to about 35MPH.  At 65MPH I would no longer use the JVC, or Ultimate Ears due to the wind noise.  At 75MPH the Skullcandy and Klipsch pick up enough noise to become bothersome, leaving the V-Moda as the overall winner of this section of testing.

Below are the results of my on the motorcycle, in helmet testing:

Skullcandy INK’D (Motorcycle Use Rating: 2)

They seal good, they’re very inexpensive, but they can’t handle higher volumes and their ports pick up more wind noise.

JVC HAFX66B Air Cushion (Motorcycle Use Rating: 1)

The design simply doesn’t lend itself to this use.  There’s no seal so wind noise is very bad.  While I might use these at the gym, I wouldn’t use them where absolute noise isolation is the goal.

Ultimate Ears MetroFi 220 (Motorcycle Use Rating: 1)

The lack of an appropriate seal on these made them useless for this application, and the exterior port exaggerated the wind noise.

Klipsch Image S2 (Motorcycle Use Rating: 2)

While these did fit in my helmet, they do touch the inner lining due to how they stick out of my ears.  This means that transduction issues are amplified, which is disappointing.  They also have issues maintaining a proper seal due to how they can be moved around by helmet movement.  Furthermore, while the port is inside, their overall extension out from my ear exaggerated wind noise.  As you saw above these were the clear winners for my subjective quality testing, however, for this particular application I cannot recommend them over the budget Skullcandy headphones or V-Moda headphones.

V-Moda Faze Audio (Motorcycle Use Rating: 3)

The stubby design, interior port and decent seal make these my current best option for motorcycle use.  They have overall good sound quality, can handle higher volumes, and do not accentuate motorcycle wind noise or cable noise.

Conclusion and Ratings:

As a result of this testing and earbud shootout I am compelled to continue my search for a good motorcycle music solution.  I have found the best of what I can for now, but will be looking to get a SHURE and Etymotic testing sample, as well as trying out some of the in helmet speaker options that exist out there.  At the moment I can offer the following suggestions to those looking for earbuds for motorcycle use:

(1)  Consider the fit and seal.  (This is the single most important factor for sound quality)

(2) Consider the size, and if use in the helmet will disturb the seal.

(3) Consider the ability of the headphones to properly operate and maintain sound quality at your desired volume.

(4) Consider where the speaker porting is on the earbud as this may exaggerate wind noise to your ear.

(5) Consider the amount of abuse the headphones will get through this use and don’t spend too much on audiophile headphones that may easily become destroyed through excessive manipulation.

JVC HAFX66B Air Cushion Interesting design, that for me didn’t result in improved sound quality.  I am also concerned with the poor build quality.

(Motorcycle Use Score: 1)

(Overall Subjective Score: 21)

MSRP $29.95  (Amazon.com has them for $17.50)

Skullcandy INK’D Good budget earbuds that are all around decent.  I’ve enjoyed mine for several months and would buy these again.

(Motorcycle Use Score: 2)

(Overall Subjective Score: 24)

MSRP $19.95 (Amazon.com as them for $11.49)

Ultimate Ears MetroFi 220 They are loud, and have the best build quality, and likely durability of the group.  However, I’m concerned by their marketing, lack of specifications and would argue they are overpriced.  They didn’t fit my ear canals, and thus lost out on much of their usefulness for me.

(Motorcycle Use Score: 1)

(Overall Subjective Score: 25)

MSRP $79.99  (Amazon.com has them for $66.99)

Klipsch Image S2 These will be my new baseline for sound quality comparison.  I feel they are appropriately priced and well designed.  They sealed the best of all those tested, and presented amazing bass presence.  These will be my new at work headphones.

(Motorcycle Use Score: 2)

(Overall Subjective Score: 32)

MSRP $49.99 (Amazon.com as them for $49.00)

V-Moda Faze Audio All around best performers.  They have good dynamics, a decent seal, are small and well built, and have an attractive price.  While their web marketing made me question how they would actually perform, I am sold on them as my current motorcycle use headphones!

(Motorcycle Use Score: 3)

(Overall Subjective Score: 31)

MSRP $35.95  (I got mine from Costco for $25 with the $10 instant rebate)

Finally, I wanted to offer a couple of warnings:  Understand that using headphones in your helmet does impair your ability to be aware of your surroundings.  You will not hear emergency vehicles until they are dangerously close, and you may not hear car or truck horns over the volume of your music.  If you choose to ride with music, ensure you are hyper aware with your vision and maintain vigilant awareness of all that is around you.

Speaking of hearing and sound quality and noise…  I was curious just how loud these headphones are at my normal listening volume, and if I may be doing damage to my ears.  So I busted out my old SPL Meter, set it up to hold the max SPL at a dBC weighting and let Hybrid’s “Choke” play while holding the Klipsch and then the Ultimate Ears up to the mic on the meter:

That’s right, 85 dB peak for the Klipsch and 87.6 for the ultimate ears at the same iPod volume level that I use when riding.  The general consensus is that SPL levels above 85SPL are dangerous.  So while it appears I am currently safe from severe hearing loss, it shows that I am at that limit point with just my music, and additional wind and motorcycle noise could easily bring that number up.  Be careful with your hearing so you can enjoy your music for years to come!