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Klipsch Image S4 II review: Same impressive sound, better design

With the $79 Image S4 II, Klipsch has improved upon its highly rated S4 earphones with a new tangle-resistant, more durable flat cord.

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David Carnoy
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David Carnoy

Executive Editor / Reviews

Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable e-reader and e-publishing expert. He's also the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks and Nook e-books, as well as audiobooks.

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Combining a comfortable fit with excellent sound for the money, Klipsch's original Image S4 and S4i earphones have long been among our favorites here at CNET. But the one knock against them is that they just don't hold up that well over time, a criticism that seems to stem from their thin cord.

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Klipsch Image S4 II

The Good

The <b>Klipsch Image S4 II</b> in-ear headphones have the same impressive sound and fit as the original S4 model but they're more durable and have a tangle-resistant flat cord. They also come with a nice, compact carrying case.

The Bad

No inline remote/microphone (available in step-up S4i); bass lovers probably won't be satisfied by the amount of bass.

The Bottom Line

The Klipsch Image S4 II in-ear headphones add a new, more durable tangle-resistant flat cord while retaining their very respectable sound quality and superior comfort.

Enter the Image S4 and S4i II, which look and sound exactly the same as the original S4s, except for one difference: a new flat cord that's both tangle-resistant and more durable.

Both models come in white and black and for better or worse, the step-up S4i II has the same Apple-friendly inline remote/microphone that probably won't fully work with many Android mobile devices. But Android fans can rest easy: Klipsch does offer a non-Apple version called the Image S4A II Headphones for Android, which cost $99.

Design change
As I said, the the only real difference I see in this model is the the new flat, linguine-style cord. The bottom two-thirds of the cord is wider until it splits off into two narrower strands that connect to the buds with "L" and "R" clearly marked on the underside of the cable next to each bud, allowing you to easily tell the right and left apart. That's a small but important detail.

The new S4 II looks and sounds the same as the previous model but have a different cord design. Sarah Tew/CNET

While the new S4 II line seems a bit more sturdy, it's not sweat-resistant like the S4i Rugged, which has a sportier look and has been toughened up with thicker rubber moldings, and an "all-weather" design. Klipsch says the Rugged's design "resists moisture and functions through extreme elements," which presumably means very hot and cold weather. I tested the Ruggeds, too, but since I was only been able to use them in milder weather, I can't vouch for how they'll hold up for skiing or just walking around the streets in the dead of winter in Minnesota -- or New York, for that matter.

The key to what makes the S4 II earphones and their predecessors so good is the angle of the earphones' post (what the eartip attaches to) and the oval shape of the silicone eartips, of which three sizes come included. The combination creates a comfortable fit and Klipsch arguably makes the best-designed silicone eartips, giving a tight seal.

The various eartips (you get four sets total). Sarah Tew/CNET

For everyday walking around these earphones fit securely. Plenty of people used the original S4 and S4i for sporting use -- that's where they ran into some durability issues -- and this new model seems fine for a light workout, but I wouldn't count on them staying in while running. (I prefer Monster's iSport earphones for running).

The way you're supposed to wear them is, once the tips are in your ears, to wrap the cord over and around your ear from front to back. I never particularly liked wearing earphones like this but in theory it helps create a more secure fit and helps stabilize the cord. However, a lot of folks will simply wear them with the cord dangling from their ears.

If you're comparing these to the Ruggeds, in terms of fit there isn't a significant difference (that said, the Ruggeds don't have a flat cord). The inline remote is thinner on the S4i II, has a glossy finish, and smaller buttons, which makes it a tad more difficult to operate by feel. But that's not really a knock against it (in other words, it's fine).

The included case. Sarah Tew/CNET

As for additional accessories, the S4 II comes with a nice, compact carrying case. It's the same one that ships with the original S4 earphones and it's one of the better earphone cases out there because it's lightweight and compact, yet protective.

The plug is straight, not L-shaped, which some consider the more durable design. Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance
In the past, we've rated the S4s very highly for sound quality. Since Klipsch hasn't changed the sound profile, this model gets high marks, too, but it's worth discussing why a lot of people end up liking this line as much as they do. With earphones, one of the biggest keys to sound quality is the fit of the earphones, and the S4 II model fits exceptionally well. Again, that's partially due to the angle of the earpiece stem and the shape of the oval eartips, all of which allows you to get a very tight seal comfortably.

Listening to the S4 II, I can't say the sound is really that much better than you get from competing models. But the sound is nicely balanced, with good detail and ample though slightly restrained bass. They just sound pleasant and the bass response is helped by the tight seal and very good noise isolation (that said, if you are a bass lover, this isn't the earphone for you). In other words, there are other $100 earphone models out there that have the potential to sound as good as the Klipsch S4 and S4i II, but they don't necessarily reach their potential due to their fit. The Klipsch earphones do; you really get the most out of the performance they offer. (I also had no problem making calls with them on an iPhone).

The cord truly is tangle resistant. Sarah Tew/CNET

Are there better earphones out there for the money? I'd say the less expensive MEElectronics A151 is perhaps a better overall value, though it doesn't have a tangle-free cord. And the Velodyne vPulse ($99.95), which has an inline remote/microphone, delivers more bass. However, the Klipsch earphones are arguably more comfortable.

Of course, every ear is different, so some of you may not think these are supercomfortable or sound that much better than competing models. But I'd say there's a good chance the S4 II will fit you well -- and that's why I find it easy to recommend them to someone looking for sub-$100 earphones.

Conclusion
The original Klipsch S4 and S4i earphones have received high marks for their sound quality and comfort level. The one strike against them was that their cord was pretty thin and we heard complaints about them not holding up that well over time.

Like S4i Rugged, the S4 and S4i II endeavor to do better in that department and they now feature a flat, tangle-resistant cord. For someone who doesn't like the feeling of having an eartip jammed in your ear, Bose makes the $99.95 IE2 earphones, which offer some wiggle room while giving you a secure fit. But the Bose MIE2 and MIE2i model, which has a microphone and remote, is more expensive at $129.95.

If you're trying to choose between this model and the Klipsch Rugged, I'd say they're both good choices, with a very comfortable fit, tight seal, and strong sound. While this model has a classier look and should work fine for lighter workouts and everyday use, if you really are planning to hit the gym a lot, the Ruggeds are the better choice because of their sweat-resistant design.

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Klipsch Image S4 II

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8