Companies such as Shure and Etymotic have found success with high-end earbuds, and now Klipsch--best known for its loudspeakers--is taking a stab at the market with its line of supercompact Image in-ear headphones. The Image headphones reviewed here are not only the tiniest of the lot, but they sit at the top of the Klipsch headphone line and carry a rather hefty price tag of $350. Yes, that may be more than you paid for your iPod, but if you're looking for an ultracomfortable, great sounding set of earbud-style headphones, these guys don't disappoint.
Klipsch's oval-shaped "Contour Ear Gels" are largely responsible for the exceptional fit; they produce a tight seal to block outside noise and help the Image headphones produce unusually powerful bass. Since everybody's ear canals are different, the Image comes with five sizes and types of Contour Ear Gels.
Achieving a snug fit is obviously subject to the vagaries of your particular ear canal, but we never had to experiment with the different gels; the ones that came on the Image earpieces fit perfectly. That's a first for us!
After inserting the earpieces into your ears, you'll want to tug lightly on the wires to make sure the Contour Ear Gels are providing a complete seal against outside noise (the included "double flange" ear gels are said to provide more isolation from outside noise, though we didn't find that was the case with our ears). We never had a problem with the Image earpieces accidentally falling out of our ears.
By sealing off your ear, in-ear headphones offer a form of passive noise-cancellation. The Image headphones exhibited average ability to block external noise (the roar of the New York City subway is our own personal torture test for these things) compared to other in-ear headphones, which are more or less on a par with battery powered noise-canceling headphones. That said, we think noise-isolating headphones such as the Image sound better, clearer, and more accurate than active noise-canceling headphones, and without exhibiting the pressure on your eardrums that some folks experience when using the latter variety.
As far as accessories, you get a 1/4-inch jack adapter and an airline adapter; a cleaning tool to remove ear wax that may build up inside the earpieces; a zippered, faux-leather case for storing all of the accessories; and a smaller pouch for storing the headphones in your pocket. Another plus: the 3.5mm jack is thin enough to work with the iPhone without the need for an adapter.
That's all great, but not everything is copasetic. Part of the reason the headphones are so comfortable to wear is that the Image's 50-inch-long cables are thinner and more flexible than average. However, the long, slim cord has a couple of downsides. First, we were a little concerned about how the cord would hold up over time (even if Klipsch says the wires were put through "extensive 'real world' testing" and feature strain relief to help prevent wire damage). Also, whenever we stowed the headphones in the carry pouch, we had to bundle up the wires then untangle them every time we removed the headphones from the case. (You might want to grab a cable organizer to wrap excess length.)
More annoying were the occasional tiny, electrostatic discharge "shocks" we received from the Image earpieces when we were outside in these dry winter months. That's rarely happened with other in-ear head phones. And one other small gripe: the "L" and "R" labels that identify the left earpiece from the right are hard to read in dimly lit environments.
OK, back to the good stuff. The Image headphones may be tiny, but they have the sort of weighty sound we expect from larger headphones. The sweet, laid-back tonal balance flatters are types of music, and the gentle treble response makes even less than pristine MP3s sound acceptable.
Comparisons with our reference Etymotic ER-4P in-ear headphones confirmed our hunches about the Image. The ER-4P's sound was more detailed, with greater midrange and treble presence. When we played the orchestral soundtrack to the film Birth, the Image produced a fulsome sound on the cellos and basses, but the ER-4P seamed more transparently clear. In the quieter sections we could hear the musicians moving in their chairs over the ER-4P. The Image, on the other hand, smoothed over those details.
When it came to rock, we heard the same sort of sound differences. We loved the Image's punchy bass and lively dynamics, as well as how natural the vocals sounded. Since most headphone buyers prefer the model with more, not less bass, we think Klipsch has a winner with the Image. But if you want to hear every little detail in the music, the Etymotic ER-4P may be the better choice.