Surprisingly, alternatives are still hard to come by. Some four months after the iPhone’s debut, only V-Moda has presented a stereo headset specifically designed to play with Apple’s new star. Not only does the “Vibe Duo” offer a guaranteed-to-work plug, the recently updated model – look for “vdb-nero” on the box – also sports a button next to the microphone that allows answering phone calls with one click, meaning you won’t have to take the iPhone out of your pocket. A nice touch, and potentially a real boon if you happen to be roaming in seedy areas of town.
You can also play or pause music and skip ahead to the next song by double-clicking the button, just like on Apple’s iPhone headset. Priced at $99.95 in the U.S., the Vibe Duo has quickly become a popular choice among early iPhone adopters who paid $200 more than everybody else and received Steve Job’s $100 guinea-pig store credit in return. That way, you end up paying sales tax and nothing more. Unfortunately, to my ears, that’s still more than the Vibe Duo is worth.
The first problem is sound quality: I found these earbuds dull and bass-heavy, muffling voices and sucking the air out of acoustic and electronic music equally. Moreover, no matter which size of the provided plastic earpieces (small, medium or large) I tried for optimal fit and sound, the second problem remained noise: The cables dangling from my ears constantly generated unwelcome sound effects – scratching and popping, for example, whenever the cord scraped against my jacket. Even walking added an audible thump, in rhythm with my step. And while these may be common issues with headphones that sit in the ear-canal, ultimately it hardly matters if it spoils the fun in your music. Similarly, talking on the phone with this headset can be disconcerting. The microphone works well, picking up little ambient noise, but when you speak you’ll barely hear your own voice. It’s like talking while wearing ear plugs because the Vibe Duo does not play back anything you say.
Music sound quality, granted, is a matter of taste, and judging from user reviews posted on the Apple Store website, plenty of buyers seem to like the Vibe Duo’s characteristics. To put things in perspective, let me compare these earbuds with a few other headphone models. Where Denon’s AH-D1000 allowed Amy Winehouse’s vocal cords to sparkle and shine, the Vibe Duo tended to compress her tonal range to a narrow corridor. Same thing with Canadian singer Feist, whose little gem “Mushaboom” came across as appropriately breezy on my Sennheiser PXC 250 headphones but sounded nasal and leaden on the Vibe Duo.
To compare earbuds with earbuds, I pulled out my Bang & Olufsen A8 headphones and found them to be superior as well. Bands like Kaiser Chiefs and Hard-Fi showed a liveliness they were missing with the V-Moda headset, which had a tendency to muffle the music and take the edge off guitars and drums. R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe fared a little better but still seemed to be sitting in a tunnel and singing with unusual restraint. The biggest bang the Vibe Duo delivered for the buck was a fat bass line. In this aspect, the V-Moda earphones clearly trump Apple’s own.
If that’s not quite enough to make you want to spend $99.95 (or a certain voucher), the other option is to fork over $9.95 for Belkin’s “iPhone Headphone Adapter” or $39.95 for Shure’s “Music Phone Adapter.” Both allow you to use any headphones or headset of your choice, and the Shure adapter even features a built-in microphone. But the Belkin looks less-than-elegant, and Shure’s model adds quite a bit of cable to your headphones. Clearly, there is still plenty of room for improvement.
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