The Indianapolis, IN-based firm Klipsch first entered the headphone market in 2007, focusing primarily on higher-end models such as Custom 3 ($299, no longer in production) and the Image ($349, and now called the Image X10). Over time, however, Klipsch expanded its product line to create in-ear headphones that embrace much lower price points and that incorporate remote control/microphone functions geared to address the needs of iPod and iPhone owners. A classic case in point would be the Image S4i ($99.95), which Klipsch describes as “an in-ear headset that combines the company’s acclaimed sound and unbeatable comfort with an advanced in-line microphone and remote (control) system.” These are brave words, to be sure, but as you’ll see in a moment they’re not just hollow marketing hype; the S4i has the sonic goods to back up its own ad copy.
Unlike Klipsch’s more costly Image X5 and Image X10 models, which use what Klipsch calls “balanced micro drivers” (i.e., balanced armature-type drivers), the S4i uses an 8.5mm “moving coil micro speaker design with controlled damping.” Most manufacturers who build in-ear headphones using both balanced armature and moving coil drivers will, when speaking off the record, concede that balanced armature offer greater performance potential overall. Interestingly, though, Klipsch claims that the S4i’s moving coil driver (which features a dual magnet motor design) delivers, “smooth, full bodied sound similar to a balanced armature.” Part of the reason I wanted to review the S4i was to learn how it would compare to its more costly Klipsch brethren, which are among the in-ear models Playback uses as reference. But speaking as dedicated iPhone user, I also wanted to check out the S4i’s 3-button remote control/mic system, which is based on an Apple chip and promises a wide array of functions—especially when used with the iPhone 3GS or the latest generation iPod nano, classic or iPod touch.
Consider this combination headset/earphone if: you want a headset that sounds unusually clear and nuanced over most of the audio range (from the upper-bass region on up). Bass is taut and well controller, but not as powerful or deeply extended as in some competing models (e.g., the NuForce NE-7M). The tonal balance of the S4i is generally neutral, though it exhibits just a touch of midrange forwardness that, I suspect, many listeners will find enchanting. Relative to other in-ear headphones near its price (e.g., the $80 Apple In-Ear Headphone), the S4i delivers a noticeably more articulate and revealing sound that is particularly engaging on delicate instruments or vocals. Klipsch’s patent-pending oval eartips remain the most comfortable that Playback has ever tried. As advertised, the S4i’s 3-button remote/microphone module works exactly as advertised, making this a good choice for iPhone/iPod owners.
Look further if: you seek mid- and low bass that is not only well-defined and well-controlled (qualities the S4i offers in spades), but also blessed with power, weight, and depth (areas where the S4i comes up a little bit short). Also look further if you seek optimal tonal neutrality, as the S4i’s traces of midrange forwardness can potentially be off-putting for some listeners.
Ratings (compared to similarly-priced in-ear headphones)
- Tonal Balance: 8
- Clarity: 10
- Dynamics: 8
- Comfort/Fit: 10
- Sensitivity: 9
- Value: 9
- 8.5mm moving coil micro speakers.
- Offered in two colors: black and white.
- In-line microphone module provides a multifunction Play/Pause control button (which doubles as a Send/End button when handling phone calls). Music automatically mutes and pauses for an incoming call.
- Inbound calls: When an inbound call is received, pressing the Play/Pause button once allows the listener to answer the call. Pressing the button again disconnects the call and allows music to resume.
- Listening to music: When listening to music, pressing the Play/Pause button once causes music playback to pause. Pressing the button again allows music playback to resume. Press the button twice in rapid succession causes the iPhone or iPod touch to skip forward to the next track. Press the button three times in rapid succession causes the iPhone or iPod touch to skip backward to the previous track.
- According to Klipsch the “Image S4i is among the4 first to be fully compatible with the Apple VoiceOver feature on the third generation iPod shuffle, which allows you to hear the name of the playlist, song or artist with just the press of a button.”
- Accessories: the S4i comes with an extensive set of accessories, as listed under the COMFORT FACTOR/ACCESSORIES section, below.
- Headset/remote control compatibility factors: According to Klipsch, “the remote and mic are supported only by iPhone 3GS, iPod nano (4th and 5th generation), iPod Classic (120 GB), and iPod touch (2nd generation), MacBook, MacBook Pro and Mac Pro (2009 models). The remote is supported by iPod shuffle (3rd generation). Requires latest iPod software. Audio is supported by all iPod models. Mic and call/music button control features (are) functional with 1st generation iPhones and iPhone 3G. Volume Controls are not compatible with 1st generation iPhone 3G. Also compatible with VOIP, Skype, iChat, and audio recording applications.
- Comes with Klipsch’s patent-pending oval cross-section eartips, which are said to “naturally fit the contours—or mimic the shape—of your ear canals.”
- Provides cables and cable strain relief fittings that, according to Klipsch, have been rigorously tested for resistance to common household “chemical, cosmetic and cleanser agents.” Moreover, the cables have also been subjected to extensive “tensile strength and flex cycling tests and are then tested for strength and flexibility at every connection point, including the plug, yoke and earphone body.
<font size="4">SONIC CHARACTER</font>
As mentioned above, the dominant sonic characteristic of the S4i is the clear, nuanced and evocative sound from the upper bass region on up. Play the S4i and you’ll immediately find that it digs up and reproduces much finer and subtler levels of information most of its like-priced competitors can. This is the real draw of this headset.
Tonal balance is reasonably neutral, though it exhibits a touch of midrange forwardness. This characteristic is not so pronounced that you would notice it when listening to the S4i in isolation, but it becomes apparent if you listen to the S4i in side-by-side comparison with a more neutrally voiced headphone (for example, Klipsch’s own Image X10). The good news is that this quality makes vocals and most kinds of instrumental music come alive in a good way—even though it pushes them just slightly too far forward in the mix. For some this will seem a flaw (albeit a minor one), but for others it’s a quality that make music sound more engaging and alive than it otherwise would.
The S4i is not the last word in bass depth and power, though the bass it does deliver is presented with terrific clarity and definition with absolutely no boominess of any kind. Those who expect bass to have some “meat on its bones” might be little disappointed, but clarity seekers should be very happy.
Important note: for best bass response, try the following adjustment tip that Klipsch recommends. Insert the S4i’s (using the eartip size that best fits you), then gently rotate the headphone body (and eartip) left and right a few degrees and then slightly pull it backward just a bit. This technique helps the eartips flare out in your ear canal to achieve a comfortable, airtight seal—and with it, optimal bass response.
Unlike many of the headsets Playback has tested, the S4i does not place the in-line microphone on either the left or right earpiece cable, but rather provides a 360 degree mic in a central position on the headphone yoke where the left and right earpiece cable join. This is a superior place to put the microphone and, as Klipsch points out (and I verified in my user tests), it means you don’t need to “talk down” into the mic. During test phone calls, call recipients reported that I sounded much more like myself with the S4i in use than when using my iPhone’s normal mic or other headsets I had tested in the past.
<font size="4">MUSICAL EXAMPLE</font>
A track that nicely shows off both the S4i’s strengths and weaknesses is “Stormy Monday” from Eva Cassady’s beautifully recorded Live At Blues Alley [Blix Street]. First off, the track reveals the subtle vocal inflections that made the late Ms. Cassady such a wonderful performer to hear. “They call it stormy Monday,” Cassady sings, and then the S4i’s let you hear the delicate vibrato in her voice as she draws out and bends the word “Tuesday” as she completes the opening line, adding, “but Tuuuuuesday’s just as bad…” Part of what makes this song, and in fact this entire album, so enjoyable is the faithful way it captures the live feel of the recording event. Percussion, as heard through the S4i, has that powerful and immediate treble sparkle that can only be experienced in a small club, while the electric guitar has the presence, bite, and howl that can best be heard when you’re seated close to the stage. Unlike many headphones it its price class, the S4i even let you hear the subtle, low-level sounds that tell you this is a live recording: namely, whispered fragments of background conversations between club patron, sounds of shuffling chairs, or the occasional click and clink of glassware on tables.
But on bass guitar and kick drum, which are very well recorded on “Stormy Monday”, the S4i’s sound lighter than they should. Bass timbres and textures are fine and are very clearly rendered, but missing is the weight, punch, and sheer power of the bass instruments. When the kick drum sounds, for example, you should hear a deep, clear “pop” that sends a compression wave across the stage floor and straight to your ears. Through the S4i’s, you get more of a thumbnail sketch of the drum sound, but without the body and weight you’d expect. Similarly, the bass guitar should have a big, deep, rolling, and propulsive sound whose classic blues lines gently urge the song forward. Again, the S4i beautifully and accurately sketches the basic rudiments of the bass guitar’s sound, but without capturing the floor-rumbling power that make it such a compelling force. In a nutshell, the S4i’s clarity is laudable, though its lack of bass weight may leave you wishing for more.
To give you a picture that shows how the S4i fits into the broader headphone market, I offer below, comparisons between the S4i and four competitors—two priced below and two priced above the S4i. I include the NuForce NE-7M headset ($40), the Apple In-Ear Headphone/headset ($80), the Monster Cable Turbine ($150), and the Klipsch Image X10 ($349).
S4i vs. NuForce NE-7M ($40)
- The NuForce offers a subtle degree of bass emphasis which makes it stand out in comparison to the S4i, which has a comparable but inverse level of bass de-emphasis. In practice, this means the NE-7M has a noticeably more full-bodied (though not as tightly controlled or well defined) bass sound.
- Across most of the audio range, the S4i sounds significantly more revealing and nuanced than the NuForce, which is saying a mouthful when you consider how good the NE-7M’s are to begin with. You will, however, be able to hear traces of the Klipsch’s midrange forwardness on some recording.
- The S4i proved more effective as a headset thanks to its centrally positioned, 360-degree mic.
- Both headphones come with a good mix of eartips. I found that the NE-7M’s offered slightly superior noise isolation, but that the S4i’s enjoyed a noticeable edge in terms of quality.
S4i vs. Apple In-Ear Headphone/Headset ($80)
- Bass capabilities of the S4i and Apple In-Ear Headphones are similar, since both headphones present slightly recessed mid- and low-bass. However, I would give the S4i the edge in terms of reproducing subtle bass textures and timbres.
- In terms of tonal balance, the Apple In-Ear Headphones and Klipsch S4i’s offer different sets of tradeoffs. The Apples are quite neutral through the body of the midrange with slight rolled off highs, where the S4is shows hints of midrange forwardness, but have beautifully extended highs. The S4i’s, however, enjoy a significant edge in overall clarity, detail and nuance.
- Both the Apples and S4i’s work well with iPhones and iPods (no surprise there), though I again preferred Klipsch’s centrally-positioned mic and remote.
- Though it is difficult to determine such things in a journalist’s review, I suspect the S4i will prove to be the sturdier design for long term use. I say this in part because Klipsch’s eartips fit more snuggly on their earpieces that the Apple eartips do (some Playback readers have complained that the Apple eartips can work loose over time and that Apple does not sell replacements).
S4i vs. Monster Cable Turbines ($150)
- The Turbines may have a subtle touch of bass emphasis but are basically quite neutral in their overall presentation. In side-by-side tests, the S4i sounds a bit bass-shy and just slightly midrange forward by comparison. Not surprisingly, the Turbines have much greater bass power and impact than the S4i’s.
- In terms of clarity and nuance across much of the audio spectrum, the S4i’s can go toe-to-toe with the more expensive Turbines. In essence, the Turbines offer superior neutrality and evenness of tonal balance, which the S4i’s offer a certain evocative quality that makes low-level details come alive.
- The S4i provides iPod headset functions whereas the Turbine does not.
- Both headphones come with a good selection of eartips. The Turbines may enjoy a very slight edge in terms of noise isolation, but the Klipsches offer superior comfort (you can literally wear them for hours without discomfort or ear fatigue).
S4i vs. Klipsch Image x10 ($349)
- It is, of course, somewhat unfair to compare any product to a competitor three and half times its price, but I just had to see how the S4i’s would stack up in comparison to Klipsch’s flagship.
- The X10 is a true do-all design that offers neutral tonal balance, remarkable bass power and extension, and plenty of resolution and detail. Once you hear the X10, you’ve experienced the benchmark the S4i was aiming for. Does the S4i fall short of its bigger brother? Yes, and in almost every area of performance. But that said, I should point out that the S4i does capture at least some measure of the “feel” of its bigger brother, especially in terms of its clear, evocative presentation of sonic details.
- The Image X10 and the S4i share Klipsch’s patent-pending oval eartip design, which is exceptionally comfortable.
The S4is come with three sets (S, M, L) of single-flange oval eartips, a pair (S/M) of double-flange oval eartips, a clothing clip, a cleaning tool, and spring clasp-equipped fabric carrying pouch.
Klipsch’s oval eartips are, by a not subtle margin, the most comfortable Playback has ever tested. Guest listeners often commented that the Klipsch’s were night/day different from and better than competing in-ear headphones in terms of ease of insertion and long-term comfort.
One thing I did notice is that the shape of Klipsch’s oval eartip design appears to have changed just a bit relative to the original 2007 version (the earlier models were slightly shallower but also more widely flared than the 2010 versions). Personally, I found the original 2007 shape gave a slightly better in-ear seal, though the 2010 design may achieves an even more “weightless” feel in the ear canal. Even so, I’d like to see Klipsch bring back the more widely flared shape it originally used, because it made for superior noise isolation and better bass.
<font size="4">BOTTOM LINE</font>
<font size="4">The S4i is a strong competitor in its price class, though perhaps not a slam-dunk winner. The headset is light, small, sturdy and beautifully made. Relative to competitors in or near its price class, the S4i offers an usually high degree of clarity, detail and nuance, though with a touch of midrange forwardness. Bass is taut and well-defined, but not as powerful or deeply extended as in some competing phones. Overall, though, the S4i is a great musical communicator and a good value. It’s also makes a wonderful headset/remote control for owners of contemporary iPhones and iPods.</font>
<font size="4">SPECS & PRICING
Klipsch S4i headset/in-ear headphone
Frequency response: 10Hz – 19kHz
Weight: Not specified
Sensitivity: 110 dB/mW
Impedance: 18 ohms
Warranty: Two years, parts and labor
KLIPSCH GROUP, INC.