Monster may be new to the headphone market, but it's off to a good start. The company recently introduced the Beats by Dr. Dre, a full-size over-the-ear headphone, which was codeveloped by the master hip-hop artist and producer. That headphone received its fair share of rave reviews and was followed shortly after by the Tour in-ear model of the same branding. Next came this remarkable in-ear model, the Turbine. Monster isn't shy about making bold claims for its designs, dubbing the Turbines "In-Ear Speakers," implying the Turbines sound more like speakers than your average in-ear 'phone. We don't know about that, but we can say we're impressed by the sound quality offered by this petite pair.
We don't usually comment on the packaging headphones come in, but the Turbine's lavish box is on par with models that sell for many times the Turbine's $149 MSRP. True, it's not going to make the headphones sound any better, but its sumptuous look and feel definitely make you feel like you've bought something special.
When it comes to in-ear headphones, proper fit is everything. If they're not comfortable, if you feel pressure in your ears, or if you're constantly pushing the eartips back in, that won't bode well for a long-term relationship. To address that concern, the Turbines come with five pairs of silicone eartips (three sizes of standard and two sizes of triple flange). We put in a fair amount of time swapping between different eartips before settling on the largest standard (mushroom shaped) ones. Even so, we had to fuss with each insertion for a minute or so before achieving a good seal (everybody's ears are different, and you may get an ideal seal with minimal effort). Remember that without a tight eartip/ear canal seal you won't hear the true sound the Turbine (or any in-ear headphone) is capable of producing.
As for the Turbines themselves, their quality of construction feels way more impressive than most in-ear models we've tested, with the exception of the Ultimate Ears UE-5 Pro ($600) and UE-10 Pro ($900). The Turbines' chromed, all-metal body has a lot to do with that impression of quality; it feels like a high-end design, and it's significantly heavier than most in-ear headphones. That didn't bother us, although we were initially concerned that the metal construction might not be such a great idea during these cold winter months (it didn't turn out to be a problem). Descending from the earpieces is a 45-inch-long cable that terminates in a gold-plated straight 3.5mm plug; the wire seems less tangle prone than most headphone cables, although more so than the excellent, ribbonlike cord that's attached to the Tours. The Turbine comes with a padded black carry case with a magnetic clasp.
All this designy goodness is all well and good, but you can just throw it by the wayside if the headphones don't sound good. Luckily, the Turbines don't suffer from this problem. "Paper Moon" from Whiskeytown's Pneumonia album had a rich tonal balance that's rare on in-ear headphones. The song's orchestration was gorgeously portrayed so the basses and cellos had a weighty presence. The high strings were clear, the drums' detailing was exceptional, and Ryan Adams' vocals had just the right balance of articulation and warmth. As for the Turbines' "In-Ear Speakers" tag, well, we wouldn't go that far. They sounded like headphones to us.
But the Turbines didn't flatten dynamics; we heard more of the music's soft-to-loud liveliness than we get from our reference Etymotic ER-4 in-ear headphones ($299). In that sense, the Turbines were more speakerlike. They bettered the ER-4 on just about every count, they had superior high and low frequency clarity. But the ER-4's eartips had a more reliable fit and blocked outside noise better. That was obvious on New York City's noisy subway; the Turbines let more of the racket through. Also, when listening in quieter locations, we were very aware of clothing noises rustling the Turbine's cable. The slightest rub against the cable was very audible.
We next compared the Turbine with Klipsch's Image in-ear headphones ($349). The Image was more comfortable, easily achieved a more secure fit and seal, and delivered considerably more bass fullness on the Raconteurs' Broken Boy Soldiers album. That said, the Turbine sounded more present, the band's thrashing guitars jumped out of the mix, and the sound was more "open," less stuck inside our heads. Impact and pedal-to-the-metal dynamic oomph were superb. The Turbine's bass is certainly full enough and had better pitch definition than the Image. In fact, the Turbine's bass, midrange, and treble tonal balance were remarkably consistent. And all this from headphones that cost half as much as the Etymotic and Klipsch headphones--the Turbine earphones definitely offer the best bang for the buck in this test group. Park them in your ears and let the good times roll.