To headphone makers, this must feel like a golden age: Apple alone has sold more than 275 million iPods. On top of that, hundreds of millions of other pocket musicians roam the world – wanna-be iPods as well as smartphones with built-in MP3 players. So even if many people stick with the generic earbuds that come bundled with their gadgets, fortunes can be made by selling better headphones to people who want to actively listen to music, not just put something in their ears that makes the world go away.
No wonder, then, that more and more new players are trying to get into the game – brands that might have been on the periphery of the market but never used to design earphones before. Take Rockford Fosgate, for example, an audio company from Arizona that has specialized in rocking worlds on wheels by producing big-amp car stereo systems. Apparently taking a cue from another hi-fi specialist, Monster Cable, which successfully broke out of its niche to conquer the world of mobile audio, Rockford Fosgate decided to release its own pair of upscale earphones named “Punch Plugs”.
In many ways, these in-ear headphones seem like a bulkier, beefed-up cousin of Monster’s “Beats Tour” – featuring a similar but more muscular design and the same kind of “tangle-free” flat cable, which rarely ties itself into knots. (A very welcome feature.) Even the color choice is almost identical, with both companies placing a red logo on the silver cap of black earbuds. I’ll let the lawyers sort out further details, but Monster gets my vote when it comes to outward appearance: The Punch Plugs’ plastic cord and connector plug look rather cheap and virtually scream “Made in China”, even though these earbuds have a suggested retail price of $99 and clearly aspire to be more than a knock-off from the bargain bin.
As the name implies, the Punch Plugs are meant to make noise. “Get Loud”, the package writing demands, pointing out that the 15 mm drivers manage to produce 115 decibel, which is louder than a chainsaw and can – fairly quickly – lead to hearing loss. There’s a warning inside the package, of course (the lawyers made sure), but the marketing punchline for the Plugs is printed more prominently on the outside: “When too much is just right.” Um, sure. Cool, dude.
We can probably read this as the swagger of a company used to wooing muscle-car drivers by promising plenty of boom for the buck – and now it’s trying to do the same for the poor souls who sometimes have to take the bus. In this respect, the Punch Plugs deliver: For the most part, they specialize in hammering eardrums and going for the bassline. If you like rap, metal, hip-hop, these headphones might be right up your alley. They certainly probe the depths of the sound spectrum, and when you crank them up they can pack a punch, just as their name implies. I found them generally pleasant to wear, too, and they manage to block outside noise by virtue of sitting in the earcanal like earplugs.
But no matter which pair of “comfort plugs” I tried out in order to adjust the fit of the earbuds, the Punch Plugs always had a tendency to muddle the sound, spreading an invisible blanket over almost every song I let them play with. Guitar riffs lost some of their sparkle, drumbeats felt strangely lackluster, voices undefined, nasal or lacking in character. To be sure, this is a matter of taste. But generally speaking, the Punch Plugs emphasize bass over everything else, while Monster’s Beats Tour give a more balanced performance, preferring the mid and high range and sometimes, in fact, coming across as a bit too airy. Shure’s recently reviewed SE115m fall in-between the two rivals and find what is – to my ears – a happy median between delivering raw beats and tuneful sophistication.
Given the ever-growing market for upscale earphones, even late entrants like the Punch Plugs can hope to find a lot of buyers. However, these newcomers from Arizona cater to a very specific spectrum of musical preferences – and just like triple-decker hamburgers with onion rings or iced soy lattes with skinny milk, they may not be to everyone’s taste.