We've already had a look or two at Incase's brand new line of headphones, including last week's interview with Chief Design Officer Joe Tan and VP of Design Markus Diebel in anticipation of this week's official retail launch. They're available for presale on the Incase website as of today, and Incase Audio was kind enough to provide a full lineup of headphones for an in-depth review to mark the release.
That full lineup includes: - "Capsule" earbuds ($49.95) - "Pivot" headphones ($59.95) - "Reflex" headphones ($79.95) - "Sonic" headphones ($199.95)
There's no denying that Incase has designed a good-looking bunch of products with their audio debut. The forms are simple to the point of looking like foam prototypes (in the best way possible): the "Pivot" and "Reflex" are reduced to two circles, while the 'phones of the "Sonic" are slightly oblong and more ear-shaped. The ultra-minimal aesthetic belies details such as hidden adjustment features (more on this below) and excellent material selection.
Each of the three over-the-ear models features waxy-smooth cans, coated with Incase's "signature soft-touch" finish, while coated canvas or microsuede covers the rest of the hardware. It's also worth noting that the finish is resistant to scuffing—these may not age with a steampunk patina, but that (obviously) isn't what Incase is going for.
The mostly grayscale palette echoes the pared-down design philosophy, though each colorway has just a touch of day-glo detailing, tucked away in the fabric speaker covers. It's the equivalent of wearing neon underwear under (as Jay-Z would say) all black everything, and I can't say that it makes any sort of difference to me.
The one noteworthy problem is that it can be hard to see the "R" and "L" labels on the headband. This is less of an issue with the "Sonic" and the "Reflex," which have a single cord running from the left phone (is this convention?), but is definitely a problem with the "Capsule," where an minuscule letter is molded into the stem of each bud. A raised bump on one of the two buds (along with the letter) would go a long way here: once a user knows that bump means "right," he or she can simply figure out which one is which by touch. (I've color-coded the rubber tips on my other set of earbuds, a solution that would also work for the "Capsule.")
The soft materials go a long way towards comfort; the stiff headband of the "Reflex"—which, admittedly were used the least and therefore the least broken-in—was the only major issue among the different models. A colleague preferred the "Pivot" to the "Reflex" because 1.) they're lighter and easier to wear for extended periods and 2.) the headband issue noted above. (She also commented that the suede cushions made her ears sweaty.)
Different sizes of rubber (or foam) tips are more or less standard for all earbuds these days, so that comes down to a matter of preference for sealed or open buds; the "Capsule" fit about as well as other sealed headphones I've used before.
The "Sonic" headphones fit as well as any cans I've tried, and the elongated shape allows for a quasi-custom fit over my ears. The result is a decent seal and improved isolation compared to the MDR-V6; I've worn each for hours on end without a problem, but the memory foam ear cups provided a noticeably better overall listening experience. (For the record, I did not have any issues with sweat.)
Construction feels solid throughout (across all four models, no less); I'm not the type to subject my gadgets to abuse, but I don't quite baby them either. The hardware stood up to the average gauntlet of repeated flexing, plugging and unplugging, packing and unpacking, etc. The sliding adjustment is obviously the area of greatest concern, but so far this connection has held up nicely across the three over-the-ear models. Of course, a consumer is investing a little bit more in Incase Audio than less expensive options, so only time will tell as to their durability in the long run.
The only questionable component is the in-line remote: two volume buttons set on a single piece of plastic set on a fulcrum, where a center button that toggles play/pause in iTunes (both on computers and mobile devices). In my experience, in-line remotes are particularly prone to failure, but those of Incase Audio have also held up nicely thus far.
In fact, the remote is among the better ones I've encountered: the layout of the buttons is intuitive and the 'click' of the volume buttons feels nice and substantial—the center button only a little bit less so—and thin though it may be, the plastic doesn't feel flimsy.
Bonus points for the subtle incorporation of the remote into the cord, though there were a few occasions when I wished there was a clip for easier cable management. Incidentally, this was largely an issue with the "Capsule," the only model which I used on-the-go (I personally prefer earbuds for portability): as with any sealed earbuds, there's quite a bit of ambient interference when the cord is bumping or rubbing against anything that happens to come between my ears and my pocket (i.e. my torso). A clip would go a long way towards minimizing jostling, though it would add a bit of bulk to the streamlined design.
Similarly, I feel that the cord for the "Sonic" is just a bit short: my computer is set back about two feet from the edge of my desk, but the placement of the line out on the iMac means that the cord ends up right in the middle of my desk, either across a less-used section of keyboard or or under one of my wrists. The right-angle jack—which I find ideal for headphones—definitely helps, but the 45” cord still comes up just a little bit short.
On the other hand, the lengthy, telephone-style cable of my Sony studio monitors is great for stationary use, but it's as unwieldy as it gets when it comes to mobile applications. Here, the decision to use a custom (but otherwise replaceable) 1/8”-to-1/8” TRS cable for the "Sonic" means that the solution is obvious: get a longer cable... or, even better, Incase could provide one, in-line remote and all.
Additionally, the "Capsule" and "Sonic" also come with custom carrying cases: a funky rubber pouch and a space-age ripstop carrying case, respectively, both emblazoned with the Incase logo. The former, in particular, felt like a bit of an afterthought: it's not a true cord management solution—to be fair, Incase calls it a "storage case"—but simply a twist on the change-purse approach I've seen with other earbuds, adding unnecessary bulk. Maybe the fact that I can haphazardly stuff the "Capsule" into my pocket demonstrates their durability, but the case is a little big for pockets (especially considering that the brand is targeting the skinny-jeans set).
The custom case for the "Sonic" is more reasonable, if less design-y: it's a padded zipper case, lined with fake fur and an interior pocket for cord (or iPod) storage. It does the trick, though it's worth mentioning that the cans themselves bulge a bit when it's all zipped up.
Yet considering that unremarkable storage solutions seem more or less standard across the category—my Sonys and V-Modas alike came with faux-leather pouches—I think Incase missed an opportunity to differentiate themselves here. As a brand that's known for elegant storage, transportation and protection options for (let's not be coy) a range of Apple products, why not approach their own line of headphone accessories with the same attention to detail?
Given the prosumer pricepoints of Incase Audio, one would expect that the headphones sound substantially better than stock headphones and I'm pleased to report that they deliver. In other words, these are definitely suited for listening to music as opposed to just hearing it, which seems to be the case with 95% of personal audio consumption these days. (Not to digress, but I feel that the proliferation of the impromptu Youtube / laptop speaker listening session might be the worst part of music distribution in the digital age.)
I ended up using the "Sonic" most extensively, as I prefer studio monitor-style headphones for office use, so the audio portion of the review will focus on the high-end model. My tried-and-true Sony MDR-V6 studio monitors served as a reference point, though readers should know that these widely-used mainstays come in at a third of the price.
The bass definitely dominates the experience, short of punchiness, but not at the expense of the mid-range and treble, which are crystal clear if just slightly underpowered compared to the booming lows. The rich low end was a major contrast to my Sonys, almost to the point that I would hesitate to compare the two in terms of audio quality: the "Sonic" provides a surprisingly different listening experience, at once more intimate and generally more suited to my music preferences.
The unexpected upshot to the attenuated mids and highs was that lower-bitrate mp3s actually sounded passable: where the Sonys were merciless when it came to lossy files, the "Sonic" were a bit more forgiving and, consequently, enjoyable. (Conversely, this might raise questions about the accuracy of the audio reproduction, to which I can only respond that my ear isn't discerning enough to detect any significant distortion.)
In fact, I found that I prefer the amped-up low-to-mid range (50-100 Hz, as best I can reckon) to the relatively treble-y drivers of the MDR-V6. Overall, the balance was great for my bread-and-butter genres of indie rock and electronic music, but added a nice energy to hip-hop and really made a difference with dubstep. The "Sonic" can't obviously produce the bowel-quaking subfrequencies of an actual cab, but they're absolutely perfect for listening to, say, James Blake.
Similarly, the extra bass and isolation afforded by the "Sonic" was particularly conducive to listening to music in the office: while any over-the-ear headphone worth its salt would block out moderate shared workspace conversation, I found that the "Sonic" was better for blocking out background music. (Not that the Core crew has bad taste in music, but sometimes I just want to listen to James Blake.)
Thus, the quality comparison—if there is one to be made—came down to factors entirely unrelated to the tech specs: the "Sonic" catered to my personal preferences, listening habits and taste (not to mention design sensibility) across the board.
Still, at 200 bucks MSRP, the "Sonic" are competing with some serious high-end cans, which I must admit that I simply have never had the luxury of owning (or reviewing, for that matter).
I also spent a little time with the "Capsule" on the subway and on a bike ride—on a dedicated bike path in broad daylight—and I can't complain about the quality. Neither setting lends itself to truly appreciating balanced audio reproduction, but I can say that the audio came through clear with plenty of bass, a plus in both settings. Cord interference issues are unavoidable with sealed IEMs, so I ran it under my shirt (which did get sweaty) during the bike ride, when the remote also came in handy.
Nevertheless, the audio of the "Capsule" didn't quite stand up to that of my V-Moda Vibes, which were appreciably louder and bassier. To be fair, the "Capsule," were more balanced, but I happen to like my music loud and bass-y for transit and recreation—i.e. the occasions when I use earbuds—so I'd personally pick the Vibes over the "Capsule" at that pricepoint. (I'm not sure if the difference might be attributable to "burning in" the drivers, since I probably only put in about six hours of listening time with the "Capsule.")
For what it's worth, the colleague who has been using the "Pivot" was pleased with the audio quality. It so happens that the "Pivot" and "Reflex" have the same audio driver, so she opted for the former simply on the basis of comfort.
Last but not least, a built-in iPhone-ready mic—in the in-line remote—comes standard on each model, a hat-tip to the future of mobile computing:The iPhone and iPad are quickly becoming two of the most important sources for music, entertainment and two-way communication. This, along with the various uses and needs for headphones alongside all Apple devices, led us to the inclusion of an integrated mic and remote control be applied across our product line so that the headphones provide listening, communication and creation possibilities.
I didn't test the microphone very extensively—not least because I have no point of comparison—but it came through crisply in a few limited trials. (Note: if the microphone happens to be of particular interest, say so in the comments and I'll start dialing away.)
Still, I'm curious as to how this is factored into the price, especially for people who may never use the input.
Considering that Joe Tan, Markus Diebel and the whole Incase design team weren't targeting "studio musicians and DJs," they definitely hit the prosumer (and James Blake fan) sweet spot with their debut headphone lineup. The otherwise minimal design screams premium product, in keeping with their laptop cases and other accessories, while I must say that the audio met or exceeded my expectations across the board.
One last comment: Incase Audio seemed a bit overpackaged on the whole; no eggshell, but a lot of cardboard for sure... not that anyone is really getting hung up on the box when it comes to high-end audio. In fact, I'm sure that Incase's offerings will be a welcome sight alongside the typically overbranded and largely overembellished headphones that compete for hapless customers' attention on the shelves.
All else equal, there's no denying that the end consumer is paying a premium for superior design, which ultimately comes down to how much one values the extra attention to detail. It goes without saying that Core77 and our loyal readers certainly appreciate the effort, so it remains to be seen how far Incase can extend their reach into the electronics accessory ecosystem.
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The question is: Does the sound deliver? At $200, is the price point met with what is to be expected sound-wise? You can score a good set of Grado cans for $150, albeit they suffer from less "designiness", but they still deliver what is to be expected, and then some, to your ears. They are first and foremost intended to deliver sound, are they not?
After you've tasted the quality sound of headphones like Grado, AKG K701 (with amp), Monster Miles Davis Tribute and Turbine Pro series, it's hard to expect sub-par sound from any headphone as you realize that is what matters the most. If Incase were to make sound quality an initiative and made significant improvements (whilst keeping the price point around $200), the Sonics would kick-serious-ass. But it appears as if they usability features I mentioned above are the main focus and selling feature. Not horrible for a first try though and totally what I expected from Incase brand ethos.
On a side note, I have the empty Sonic box on a scale and it weighs 2 lbs. None of the packaging is recyclable and although it has a nice "revealing" that is oh-so-popular these days, it gets a D- for being excessive and completely non-recyclable. Totally unacceptable in today's "conscious" design world. I know they are trying to be like Apple, but even Apple has put much more thought into the sustainability of each package. Incase should take a note from their own iPhone 4 Snap Case packaging which was totally recyclable/compostable.
We appreciate your interest in our design - thanks. But, we also respect the philosophy of incase and have always done.
Brand Manager at AIAIAI
Looking at the series, I also think that they have found a quite clear "inspiration" from AIAIAIs Tracks and TMA headphones' features, all the way from the "no overbranding" policy and minimal design approach, to the materials and the cord remote etc.
Guess this is kudos to AIAIAI in way, because as you say "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery", right?
I'm a fan of incase backpacks. These headphones look like a natural offshoot of their design philosophy - which existed before aiaiai started.