The World’s Most Comfortable In-Ear Headphone?
Some years ago, when Klipsch first entered the headphone market, I took the opportunity to review the original flagship Image in-ear headphones, and I came to consider them—then and even now—a revelation in several key respects. First off, the Images were almost inconceivably small and light, enough so that they seemed almost toy-like at first, though it took only a few minutes of critical listening to grasp that the little ‘phones were in fact dead serious about sound quality. The Images, much like the iconic Etymotic Research ER4-P in-ear ‘phones, feature a single, full-range, balanced armature driver, which gives the Images (again, like the ER4-P’s) qualities of sonic purity and a desirable kind of “cut-from-whole-cloth” sonic integrity or coherency. Second, the Images became—for me and for many other guest listeners—an all-time benchmark for comfort. No other in-ear headphone I’ve experience before or since has proven as easy to wear for long periods of time, and no other eartips seem to seal as effectively or effortless as Klipsch’s patent-pending elliptical eartips do. Put these qualities together and you have an immensely likable, albeit costly, in-ear headphone design.
Over time, Klipsch decided it wanted to use the Image name not just for its top model but for all of its in-ear headphones, and accordingly the top model was renamed as the “Image X10,” soon to be joined by “Image X5,” “Image S4i,” “Image S4,” “Image S2M,” and “Image S2” models with prices ranging from $49.99 on up to $349.99. More recently, Klipsch has seen fit to acknowledge the overwhelming popularity of Apple’s iPhone by releasing versions of its headphones that incorporate an in-line microphone/3-button remote control module designed specifically for use with new generation iPods and iPhones. This brings us, of course, to Klipsch’s new top-of-the-line model, the “Image X10i,” which will be the subject of an upcoming Playback review.
What’s In the Box?
The Klipsch Image X10i headset/headphone comes with three sets of single-flange elliptical eartips, two sets of double-flange elliptical eartips, a ¼” jack adapter, an airline adapter, a garment clip, and a small rectangular carry case with a magnetic closure hasp.
For me, trying out the Image X10i has been, in many respects, like reconnecting with an old friend. It has been a while since I listened to the original Images, and sampling the Image X10i reminded me just how compact the flagship Image model really is, how comfortable and cleverly-shaped its eartips are, and of how smooth and pure its sound can be. Of course part of the appeal of this latest Image model is that it also provides the added convenience of headset functionality and the ability to control certain iPod/iPhone functions directly from the yoke-mounted remote control module.
But sound quality is always the first priority with any headphone, and the Image X10i seems to have lost none of the qualities that made the original Image so appealing. I’ve said above that the headphone provides a smooth and pure sound, but I should also let you know that the Image X10i is not a headphone that wears superior sonic resolution or detailing on its sleeve, so to speak. Rather the X10i allows those sonic qualities to unfold in a more understated way. When listening to the Image X10i, as when listening to live music, you typically won’t feel led to remark, “Wow, listen to that transient attack,” or to blurt out, “Man, those high harmonics sound great.” Instead, those kinds of features in the music unfold naturally so that you drink them in and enjoy them, but without being forced to focus on them to the extent that they might become a distraction or detract from the musical whole.
Instead, the Image X10i’s greatest strength may be a desirable quality of effortless coherency; nothing ever sounds forced, strained, or unevenly balanced through these headphones. But that said let me also observe that there are now several headphones, such as the Monster Cable Turbine Pro Copper Editions and Sennheiser IE8’s, that can equal the coherency of the Klipsches while surpassing them, although not by a terribly large margin, in terms of overall lucidity and detail.
The Klipsch’s tonal balance is smooth and even, but tilted just slightly to the warm or “dark” side of strict neutrality. On the one hand, this balance makes the Image X10i sound unfailingly musical—never overly bright or strident, as can be the case with many lesser in-ear headphones. It also means the Image X10i invariably comes across as having adequate and indeed ample amounts of bass—this in contrast to ‘phones that are too lightly balanced and therefore seem to lack foundational bass weight.
Part of the secret to the Klipsch sound involves, I think, the firm’s patent-pending elliptical eartips. Klipsch claims to have done core research that shows most human ear canals are not circular in cross section, as is commonly supposed, but rather more nearly elliptical in cross section. Accordingly, Klipsch’s eartips are elliptical in shape when viewed end on. Can such a seemingly simple design twist really make a big difference in performance and comfort? In my opinion it can and it does. One of the most striking characteristics of Klipsh Image earphones is that their eartips allow a broad range of users to achieve a good and exceedingly comfortable fit without a lot of tinkering or trial-and-error fitting. Guest listeners have unanimously praised the Klipsches as being not just a little but a lot more comfortable than other in-ear phones, and I think this is at least in part because the Klipsch elliptical eartips seem to seal well putting excessive of pressure on the sidewalls of your ear canals (many competing eartips feel OK at first, but become naggingly painful after an hour or so).
Although I have sampled some eartips that I think offer better absolute sound quality than the Klipsch elliptical tips do (for example, the Monster Cable double-layer, gel-type Super Tips), none can fully equal the Klipsch design’s elusive combination top notch sound and extreme comfort.
Where does the Klipsch X10i fall in the overall high-end, in-ear headphone pecking order? I'll try to tackle that question in an upcoming full-length review of the Image X10i in Playback. Until then, happy listening.