Review: STREET by 50 in-ear wired headphones from SMS Audio
By Paul Ridden
October 20, 2012
Dr Dre, Jay-Z and Ludacris aren't the only rappers to have given their names to audio headgear. Record producer, actor, entrepreneur and philanthropist 50 Cent has also released some cans through SMS Audio. Earlier this year the existing wired and wireless over-ear headphones were joined by the STREET by 50 in-ear wired headphones and Gizmag has spent some time getting to grips with a pair. SMS Audio says that the main focus when developing the earbud-type earphones, "was to create a sound signature that is suitable for many genres of music and not just rap/hip-hop." So how did they shape up?
"My fans have been waiting for earbuds to be added to the collection, and I’m confident that the STREET by 50 in-ear wired headphones deliver on both sound quality and style," said 50 Cent at the launch of the new earbuds. "I want to create products that fit and enhance all different lifestyles, and the in-ear headphones are just the beginning."
In the box
The STREET by 50 earphones (confusingly, the over-ear wired headphones are also called STREET by 50) are available in black, pink and white. I was sent the latter to try. I'm not usually one to be overly impressed by style but I have to say that these phones are very appealing indeed. Of mostly ABS plastic construction and sharing design elements with their bigger brothers, the pure white is complemented by a shiny chrome/silver finish that's tastefully interrupted with blue, with the flat plate housing the driver sporting the company logo.
Even the packaging is classy. There's a suitably-branded thick card box in blue with a lid that's kept in place by magnets. Behind an inner cover showing a photo of 50 Cent wearing a pair of the earphones is a nicely snug pocket for the user manual and product brochure.
I would comment that the textured lining on the earphone container does tend to leave particles on the silicon tips, which then transfer to your ears unless you remember to clean them off before insertion. A tip cleaner would have been a nice addition to the package, but overall I remain very impressed by the presentation.
The product page on the SMS Audio website introduces the earphones by claiming that users can enjoy music, "the way it was intended to be heard." After composing, performing and recording a song, musicians, mixers, engineers and producers spend a great deal of time and go to an awful lot of trouble to deliver the music precisely as they want it to be heard. However, it's obvious from the moment you switch on your music player while wearing these earphones that the sound frequencies have been tinkered with.
The blurb also claims to deliver crystal clear sound and with this point I have to agree, the delivery couldn't have been cleaner. But I'm jumping ahead a little.
The business end of each earphone contains a professionally-tuned 11 mm driver, which adds volume to the output and is therefore good for saving on the battery life of your player. The flexible joint between cable and earphone is a nice touch and the tube onto which the tips are attached is angled inward slightly, offering the promise of a more comfortable fit. However, I didn't find these to be the most comfortable buds I've ever worn, and surprisingly I had to snap on the largest of the included silicon tips before the earphones would stay in my ear for any length of time (I'm normally a medium kind of guy).
The STREET by 50 earphones are a good 10 g (0.35 oz) heavier than my regular earbuds at 19 g (0.67 oz), which is of little consequence unless you're walking around while wearing them. The flattened, reinforced cable is possibly a little on the long side too and, unfortunately, I found it guilty of transmitting quite a bit of vibration noise as I moved around.
From the Y junction to the flexible joint of the 45-degree angled, gold-plated 3.5 mm audio jack it measures 89.5 cm (35.2 inches), then from the round, branded junction to each of the flexible joints at the earphone itself is 34.5 cm (13.5 inches).
Roughly in the middle of one of the Y arms leading to the bud there's an Apple volume and playback control that also has a built-in microphone, and which offers surprisingly decent recording quality when taking calls. The flat cable is claimed to eliminate twisting, tangling and knotting, and I'd like to place my tick against this particular checkbox as it did indeed prove to be quite tangle-resistant.
Let the sound trials begin ...
SMS Audio provided the following audio specs:
That's all well and good of course, but it doesn't really express how these rather attractive earphones will actually perform once they're hanging from your head and connected to your music player of choice.
After loading my usual test suite of music onto a borrowed iPod touch and my preferred high end portable audio player, and flattening the EQ on both, the STREET by 50 earphones got off to a fine start with Pink Floyd's Money. The bass guitar wasn't as strong as I had expected but was still a tad too forward in the mix for my liking and a little lacking in warmth and definition. The guitars, percussion, vocals and various other sounds that fill the soundstage were very clear and well represented, though.
Sadly this good-but-not-great performance didn't continue into my next two choices (Joe Bonamassa and QOTSA with Billy Gibbons). A little ground was grabbed back with the help of Stanley Jordan but subsequently lost again with The Drum.
I headed to my DVD collection with very mixed feelings, which were only multiplied by a pretty decent showing with the Blues Brothers movie.
While I wasn't really expecting the kind of pure audiophile gratification offered by high-end buds from the likes of Grado, I was rather hoping for a vast improvement on my somewhat cheaper "go to" Sennheisers. It was clear that I was in for a longer haul for this review than I'd first thought so I contacted SMS Audio for some insight into the audio profile.
"There are many things that influence the sound signature of a product," said the company's Jake Nohe. "The listener’s ear canal, the way they insert the earbud into their ear canal, as well as the construction and ergonomics of the actual earbud – and all of these have an effect on how one listens to and hears music through the earbud. We have tried to create a sound signature that would be most acceptable across the broadest range of music genres – therefore, the bass is not very heavy and the highs are not too high. This was done by design, we wanted to keep a more even sound signature than some others on the market."
Between a rock and a hard place
I readily admit that not being a fan of popular or chart music might have served to hinder my sonic experiments with the STREET by 50 earphones, but SMS Audio did say that the audio profile was designed for a broad range of genres, so that's precisely what I aimed for. At the end of a week's dedicated listening and comparing I was left with lists of good, moderate and not-so-good experiences of roughly equal measure.
Let's deal with the disappointments first, shall we? I found that when listening to rock music, the bass guitar can be rather muddy and the vocal is often lost or significantly weakened behind overpowering kick drum and bass guitar, which bleed into one another to form a solid barrier of low-end drone. The experience kind of reminds me of listening to a student party through thin apartment walls, although perhaps not quite as bad. By way of example I offer Disturbed's Crucified.
From the offing, Mike Wengren's pounding rhythms effectively drive the grinding bottom end goodness of the bass and guitar work. While David Draiman's excellent vocals still take front and center, they're significantly less powerful when heard through the STREET by 50 earphones. Likewise, the rather nice higher end fret work seems to get positioned much further back in the mix than I'm used to hearing. The kick and bass are also a touch too foggy for a wholly enjoyable four and a half minutes.
More rock songs that suffer from similar issues include Black Country by Black Country Communion, Bodies from Drowning Pool, You Can't Stop Progress by Clutch, and Revolution from One Minute Silence. Representatives from other genres include Gaia Tribe by Sonny Landreth, Cold Blooded Man from Sugar Blue and Earthling by Jesse Davey.
Happily, I also discovered a number of songs which fared much better than those listed above, but my sonic adventure in this realm couldn't really be described as top notch. The hypnotic Deadly Assassins by Everlast is a good standard bearer for such tracks. Whitey's vocals here cut through the simple but atmospheric hook very nicely, B-Real's a little less so, but that doesn't serve to spoil its overall menace. If I was going to be picky, then I would again have to point to a bass that's just a little too flat to impress.
Other members of the moderate club include Eric Johnson's 12 to 12 Vibe, Spanish Castle Magic from Jimi Hendrix, Lazybatusu's Endless Road and Mescalero by ZZ Top. I have to admit that the last one took me by surprise as I had fully expected it to be relegated to the list above, but the already loud and bass-heavy mix is given an even more thunderous outing (if that's possible) through these earphones. An unexpected treat.
How about I finish things off on a positive note with those tracks that I found to be well represented by the STREET by 50 in-ear headphones, or which were even improved? I concede that I had to actively seek out tracks for this list but did find quite a few examples, and even managed to rediscover some infrequently-played favorites along the way. I found the pacesetter for this batch to be among the classics.
I confess that when it comes to music, concertos are not my first port of call, but a recording of Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No4 In G major, BWV 1049 with Claudio Abbado at the helm was very pleasurable indeed through these buds. Closing my eyes and letting the violin soloist take hold, it wasn't such a giant leap to imagine being magically transported to the Teatro Municipale Romolo Valli in Reggio Emilio, Italy.
Other music which benefited from the STREET by 50 earphone treatment include Far Dreaming by Ozric Tentacles, Yesterday Morning from Hazmat Modine, Macy Gray's Hey Young World Part 2, and Cathedral in a Suitcase by Pat Metheny.
At the close of the testing period I was still left with mixed feelings so I tried using the SMS Audio earphones exclusively for a few days to see if I might warm to the way they've been tuned. I actually found myself needing to tweak the EQ on the music players quite often to try and get the best instrument separation and audio reproduction. This is something I wouldn't have of expected to do with earphones at this price point and have since happily returned to my Sennheisers.
When reviewing this audio product, I have not taken the raw scientific approach and simply put them through a series of signal tests to compare them against a pre-determined ideal. While I make no claims to have a so-called golden ear, I have tried my fair share of great (and not so great) audio gear over the years and use this experience for a subjective review.
In the looks department, the STREET by 50 earbuds are quite the little stunners. The packaging is similarly impressive and oozes quality. But the whole ensemble misses the target slightly on audio fidelity.
That the buds alter the sound of the source music is obvious from the moment you hit the play button, but in some cases this change is a detrimental one, and it's often at the lower end of the frequency curve that problems appear. I found the sound of the bass guitar to be quite dull and lifeless on some tracks, and could even bleed over and obscure the vocals. With others, the lower mid range is rather weakly represented. Yet there are songs that also come through rather well.
Unfortunately, for me, the STREET by 50 in-ear wired headphones from SMS Audio just didn't produce the consistently great audio experience I would have hoped for from something in this price bracket.
Although released with a suggested retail price of US$119.95, they're currently listed on the SMS Audio website for $99.95.
Product page: STREET by 50 In-Ear Wired Headphones