Look what the mailman delivered the other day; it’s a box straight out of Hollywood, California, home of young headphone couturiers V-Moda. They’ve just released their newest model of IEM (in ear monitor) earphones, the V-Moda Vibe. Resembling several things Hollywood-ish, these phones just ooze glamor and style.
After wading through lots of marketing-speech and company philosophies on V-Moda’s website, I began to wonder if there could be more to these phones than mere style. Are they more than just a fashion accessory? Do they deliver more than glitzy appearance? Well, let’s see (and hear)…
Reviewed by: Martin Sägmüller (dfkt)
Edited by: Grahm Skee
The Vibes come with a lot of accessories: a generous eight pairs of silicone fittings in different sizes and two colors, the “Modawrap” (a V-shaped cable wrapper) and a gold-colored leather pouch for carrying the phones. A membership card for the “V-Moda VIP” club is also included.
You get two pairs of every size of silicone fittings, which is great because it’s rather easy to lose those small silicone thingies. The fittings are interchangeable with different brands of IEMs, I tried Ultimate Ears and Etymotic bi-flange fittings on the Vibes, and they fit well. So, depending on your taste (or ears), you can easily modify the Vibes if you don’t like the original fittings.
The “Modawrap” seems like a neat idea if you like to shorten the cable, but I find it too heavy having it dangling down my body, bouncing around. It’s ok if you store it in a pocket, together with your audio player, though. It is made of thick, soft silicone and has a quality feel to it.
The golden leather pouch seems to be mainly targeted at the female audience – I wouldn’t be caught dead flashing that thing out in public. It does its job, keeping the phones in a fairly safe place, but it really looks a little too gaudy for my tastes.
The membership card gives you access to a section of V-Moda’s website where you can listen to exclusive podcasts and DJ mixes, and get special offers and previews of upcoming products among other things.
Wow, those things look nice. They’re made almost entirely of aluminum – the plug, the cable separator and the phones themselves. The phones feel very solid, but extremely lightweight considering their durable, industrial appearance. The Vibes come in two different colors “Flashblack Chrome,” the silver version and “Gunmetal Black” a grey version. I just wish I could get them in boring old standard black. The glitzy chrome is nice, but I’d rather like to keep a low profile.
The braided cable’s transparent plastic coating seems to somewhat prevent tangling of the cables. The cable has a nice, tough feel to it, better than most other sub-$100 IEMs.
The V-Moda logo on the cable separator and the “L” and “R” indicators on the phones are engraved instead of just painted on. A very nice detail, although it’s somewhat hard to see which phone goes in which ear under dim light conditions.
All in all, I love the design and materials used for the Vibes. They are unique and well made. Although there aren’t many IEMS to compare them to – the Audio Technica ATH-CK7 and the Panasonic RP-HJE70 come to mind, but neither can keep up with the overall presentation of the Vibes. Both use standard plastic plugs and cheaper cables, for example. The Vibe is well designed from top to bottom, something that’s usually only seen in a much more expensive category of IEMs.
- Frequency response: 18 Hz – 22 kHz, specified by manufacturer on the press info sheet (12 Hz – 22 kHz on V-Moda’s website)
- Impedance: 16 Ohms
- Sensitivity: 92 dB (1 kHz / 1 mW)
- Driver: 9mm neodymium rare-earth magnet
- Cable length: approx. 84 cm from plug to Y-connector, approx. 36 cm from Y-connector to the earphones (symmetric)
- Plug: Gold-plated, straight 3.5 mm metal plug
- Weight: 12 grams
Contrary to most other IEMs the Vibes don’t use armatures for sound reproduction, but traditional dynamic drivers. This means they might have to “burn in” – the sound character will change in the first few hours of usage before settling down to its final characteristics. They might sound harsh fresh out of the box, but this will mellow out. Mine took about ten hours of usage to reach their final sound signature.
[I also found that burn in is very critical with the Vibes. Straight out of the box they sound very harsh and tinny on the high end. Before you start listening to them, plug them into your MP3 player, tune them to a comfortable listening volume, put your MP3 player on random repeat all, and set them aside to play for ten or more hours. Do not skip this step, your ears will thank you.] -Grahm
Another factor that separates the Vibes from most other IEMs is that they are designed “semi-open”. A little hole in the enclosure lets the air flow. This might be the reason for the slightly wider-than-usual soundstage of the Vibes, compared to similar IEMs.
This most likely would
also be the reason they don’t isolate as much as most other IEMs. Phones that let some outside noise pass through can be useful in certain situations where you need all your senses (jogging, biking, and so on). But it means you have to crank up the volume pretty high while listening on the bus or subway to drown out the outside noise. I had to listen at dangerously high levels while commuting, making the Vibes somewhat useless in loud surroundings. My ears were ringing afterwards.
These phones are efficient, even if the specs don’t say so. They can get very loud played through the weak amplifiers of portable players. Due to their low impedance you might notice some slight background hiss on lower quality amplifiers.
The tone canal diameter is rather wide compared to other IEMs. Letting more air flow to your eardrum certainly is a good thing.
I tested the bass frequency response using sine waves played through the preamped headphone output of an Echo Indigo DJ sound adapter. My test resulted in a frequency response starting at 20 Hz, and I really could feel the bass starting at 23 Hz. So the manufacturer’s specifications for bass response are more or less accurate.
The cable is really nice. It is thicker than the cables on most other IEMs and is very soft and flexible. On the silver version of the Vibe the braided cable is enclosed in a transparent plastic coatings mentioned earlier, and the grey version has a matching grey cable. Unfortunately the cable is microphonic, like on most other IEMs. When it moves across your clothing the scraping sounds get transmitted to your ears, due to the tight fit of the silicone fittings against your skull. However, it’s not as bad as with some other IEMs in that aspect. A way to partially prevent the microphonics is wearing the cables up and around your ears instead of letting it dangle down in front. This way some of the noise gets absorbed before it reaches your ears.
The 3.5 mm plug is made entirely of aluminum, like the earphones themselves. It has a quality feel to it, but unfortunately it’s a straight plug. For most audio players this means the plug sticks out far from the headphone jack, and couldn’t damage the jack when not handled carefully. In my opinion a 90-degree angled plug would be more reasonable for portable use.
Now it’s about time to get down to the nitty and/or gritty: the sound. After all, it’s not just about the looks and specs, right?
I used several different setups in my evaluation:
- iAudio X5L (original firmware, with EQ and BBE enhancements) > Vibes
- iAudio X5L (Rockbox firmware, pure line-out) > PA2V2 headphone amplifier > Vibes
- Samsung YP-U1 > Vibes
- Winamp > Echo Indigo DJ > Vibes
- Winamp > Echo Gina > PA2V2 > Vibes
Well, that being said, the Vibes don’t sound very different played through the various sources. They might be a tad better through the proper amps of the Echo Indigo and the PA2V2, but the difference is marginal; they still are amazing on the weaker iAudio and Samsung players.
During the tests I listened to a lot of various styles of music with the Vibes (mostly MP3 and Ogg Vorbis): drum ‘n’ bass, electro/techno, dancehall, reggae, rock, blues, metal, jazz, samba, RnB, and hip hop.
First off, these IEMs are designed with following philosophy/marketing in mind, “V-Moda’s spirit is a jet set journey through the discothèques of Europe, beaches of California, and the scenes of Hollywood” (according to V-Moda’s website and PR-team) – that would imply that they were designed mainly for reproducing electronic dance music.
The Vibes are no “basshead” phones like the Sennheiser CX 300 or Super.Fi 5 EB. The low bass is there, refined and not bloated, but it might not be enough to provide a satisfying reproduction for the subwoofer-spoiled dance music aficionado. For music like Techno, Drum ‘n’ Bass or Dancehall Reggae I prefer some other phones, with stronger bass and maybe more recessed mids. On Photek’s “Seven Samurai” remix everything sounded good, but I was missing the all-encompassing low frequency attacks that are the fundament of the track. On Red Rat’s “Mr. Wilson” I appreciated how well-defined the vocals were presented, but again, too thin on the bottom and maybe a bit too sharp on the hi-hats. Other electronic tracks that aren’t in need of overly exaggerated bass, like Drexciya’s “Plankton Organisation”, were simply beautiful to listen to.
Where the Vibes really shine (and put many other IEMs to shame) is in the midrange and treble. Vocals, guitars, wind instruments and percussion sound great. The sound is very transparent, immersive and airy with most rock, blues, jazz, reggae and even some assorted classical music. They catch tiny nuances and the instruments are well separated. They react very well to modern, heavily compressed recordings, but play most older, more dynamic tunes equally well. I even enjoyed old, badly recorded rock albums, like the Misfit’s “Walk Among Us” or Hüsker Dü’s “Metal Circus” which I usually don’t listen to with earphones. The Vibes however gave new life to these songs, I could make out nuances that I didn’t notice with other IEMs. A similarly revealing experience was listening to John Coltrane’s 1959 album “Giant Steps”: the Vibes blew the dust off the vinyl and presented the quartet’s music very alive and enjoyable. I could hear several things better than with other IEMs: Paul Chambers’ fingers snapping the strings against the fingerboard and Coltrane’s saxophone opening and closing the keys on the tone holes.
I’m not a fan of name-dropping and describing music with words. It’s like dancing about architecture, as the saying goes. But I hope this clarifies some of the strengths and weaknesses of the Vibes.
One thing is for sure: the Vibes knock the stuffing out of every other comparable IEM I know of in terms of clarity, crispness, dynamics and, most of all, listening fun. Yes, I even liked them better for most jazz and classical recordings than the more linear Etymotic ER-6. They don’t dissect the sound as much, but give a more enjoyable overall presentation. One could describe the Vibe’s sound as “warm” or “laid back”, but not overly so. Compared to bass-heavy phones like the CX 300, Super.Fi 5 EB or Sony’s terrible sounding EX series, they don’t make you feel as if you have a subwoofer shoved up your brain, but they do deliver smooth articulated bass, and far better mids and treble.
They respond well to equalization, as long as the EQ is of high quality. On iAudio’s original firmware and Rockbox, I really could tweak anything to my liking without distortion or clipping. With the mediocre EQ of my Samsung player and with the outright horrible EQ of Winamp there wasn’t much to be done; the Vibes sounded better without equalization.
Contrary to the performances of many other IEMs the Vibes also sound good when played at quiet volume levels. You don’t have to turn everything up to eleven to reach their full potential.
As nice as the Vibes handle many lower quality analog recordings, they are not so forgiving with badly compressed digital music with low bitrates. Without quality input, you’ll hear a lot of imperfections and compression artifacts. Now would be the time to re-rip your music collection to at least 192 kbps MP3 or 160 kbps Ogg Vorbis.
They’re very comfortable to wear, so don’t be fooled by their edgy industrial looks. The clear silicone fittings are very thin and soft. The black fittings feel less flexible, but still softer than the ones that come with Ultimate Ears Super.Fi IEMs. I usually prefer those more rigid fittings – they provide a tighter seal in my ears, but with the Vibes I stuck with the smallest soft fittings. Due to the long tone canal of the Vibes the small fittings go deep into my ear canal and provide a sufficient seal.
For me, with medium sized fittings the Vibes stick further out of my ears than the Sennheiser CX 300 or the Creative EP-630, but they’re still comfortable enough to use them in bed
. With the small fittings they go much deeper in my ear canals, making them even more comfortable lying with my ears on the pillow – but I still prefer the Sennheiser CX 300 in that situation. Different people, different ears – your mileage may vary.
They stay pretty well in my ears, even while running. They never lost their seal or fell out once.
One downside to the aluminum construction of the Vibes is that they can be rather cold when first inserting them. But, as it is the nature of metal, they warm up pretty fast once inside the ear.
The Vibes are a definite recommendation. I don’t know of any other IEM in the $100 category that comes close in sound clarity, crispness, instrument separation and fun, not to mention the build quality. The Vibes outclass the Etymotic ER-6 in most aspects. They might not be exactly as linear as the Etys, but they’re so much more fun to listen to, the sound is more engaging. The Vibe’s mids and treble are also superior to the Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 5 EB, but of course they do lack the overwhelming bass of the Ultimate Ears (or Sennheiser CX 300). Bassheads might have to look elsewhere, but for people looking for balanced, airy, clear sound with very slightly increased bass, the Vibes are the way to go. If you don’t care too much about noise isolation, that is. Isolation really is their weakest point.
Even if the marketing-speech on V-Moda’s website might be a turn-off for some people, anyone in need of a pair of high quality IEMs should consider the Vibes as a serious contender to other, even more expensive, products.
- Clear, balanced, non-fatiguing sound, very crisp and dynamic – and fun to listen to.
- Marginally wider soundstage than most other IEM-style earphones.
- Comfortable to wear for an IEM-style earphone, huge assortment of silicone fittings.
- Solid overall look and feel – phones, plug and cable.
- Unique industrial design.
- Does not isolate nearly as well as most other IEMs. This might not necessarily be a negative point for some applications, but it’s really bad while trying to listen to music in loud environments.
- Straight 3.5 mm plug. It’s a matter of taste, but might damage the headphone jack of an audio player more easily than an angled plug.
- Microphonic cables, like most other IEMs.
I have yet to see them at the B&M electronics retailers. However, you can pick them at many online retailers but I found that Amazon has the best price on them at $64.