Those of you who have downloaded free copies of the Playback Headphone Buyer’s Guide know that I was very favorably impressed by Skullcandy’s Titan in-ear headphones, which initially sold for around $50/pair (the price for the Titans has since been reduced to $34.95-$39.95/pair, depending on finish). Good though the Titans are, however, some listeners would still prefer a lower cost solution and one that provides basic headset functionality for use with cell phones. For them, Skullcandy offers its cleverly named Smokin Buds, priced at $29.95/pair.
I decided to try out the Smokin Buds to see for myself what advantages a relatively low-priced solution might have vis-à-vis stock Apple earbuds.
Consider this combination headset/headphone if: you seek an in-ear headset/headphone that is comfortable and affordable, that offers very good noise isolation and that produces dramatically more powerful bass and smoother overall sound than that of standard Apple earbuds. The headset functions are a welcome convenience touch, too.
Look further if: musical accuracy and neutral (or nearly neutral) tonal balance are what you seek. The Smokin Buds offer very powerful bass with smooth but also somewhat subdued or recessed highs and upper mids. This combination of tonal characteristics delivers a sound that some listeners will find deep, rich, and smooth but that—at the end of the day—is not as accurate as it could be. For just a little more money, Skullcandy’s Titans earphone sounds noticeably more balanced and is no less enjoyable for long-term listening.
Ratings: (relative to comparably price earbuds/in-ear headphones)
- Tonal Balance: 6
- Clarity: 6
- Dynamics: 7
- Comfort/Fit: 9
- Sensitivity: 9
- Value: 7.5
- 9mm drivers.
- In-line mic with built-in send/end track forward button (note: earlier generation versions came with an in-line sliding volume control in lieu of the mic/headset switch, so be sure to look for the “mic” label on the packaging if you need or want headset functionality).
- For maximum personalization value, Smokin Buds are offered in—count ‘em—21 different color combinations (our review samples were in a very cool gloss black on rubberized black finish).
- Carry pouch.
- Distinctive “Aggressive Listening” and “Defective Product” warranties (see SPEC&PRICING section, below, for details).
Probably the most frequent complaint I hear about in-ear headphones is that they offer inadequately powerful bass. The Smokin Buds address that complaint in a big way, with a rich, full, powerful low-end sound. The problem, though, is that with the Smokin Buds bass can sometimes dominate the listening experience to the point of excess, making other frequencies sound too recessed in the mix. Upper midrange and treble frequencies are somewhat rolled-off, too, which can make the Smokin Buds’ bass prominence seem that much more apparent. This package of tonal characteristic will, as I suggested above, appeal to some tastes, but over the long haul I think the majority of listeners might prefer a more neutral and therefore more accurate sound.
If you use an iPod, one strategy for getting more accurate sound from the Smokin Buds is to go into the iPod’s EQ setting menu and to engage the “Bass Reducer” function. This adjustment effectively pulls the response curve of the Smokin Buds back toward sonic neutrality, making it much easier to hear midrange details and to use and enjoy all of the treble response that’s available.
Noise isolation: the Smokin’ Buds come with three size of soft rubber eartips that, in my experience, proved easy to fit, enabling me to achieve a good, comfortable airtight seal in my ear canals. The Smokin Buds do a very good job of blocking out ambient noise.
The track “Root Beer” from Thomas Newman’s soundtrack for the film American Beauty at once shows off the strengths and weaknesses of the Smokin’ Buds. The song opens with a potpourri of high percussion instruments (gongs, cymbals, chimes, supported—believe it or not—by a whoopee-whistle), and then grabs the listener’s attention with a deep and fairly loud plunging synth bass line. When heard through stock earbuds, the track frankly sounds disappointing if not downright lame; you’ll mostly thin-sounding mids with limited highs and anemic bass. Switch to the Smokin Buds, however, and the sound immediately improves. Mids smooth out and become clearer, while the bass line becomes dramatically more powerful.
Even so, the balance you’ll hear with the Smokin Buds is not quite right. The shimmer and sparkle of those initial percussion sounds seems unnaturally muted, almost as though someone had thrown a thin, damp cloth over the instruments, dulling their sound. And, while the bass line is closer to being right with the Skullcandy’s than with the stock earbuds, it comes across as being over-the-top loud and a bit out of control—meaning you’ve crossed the line from not enough bass (the sound of the stock iPods) to a bit too much (the sound of the Smokin Buds).
We would prefer listening to the Smokin Buds to stock earbuds any day, but the fact is that for just a little more money you could have Skullcandy’s terrific Titans, which are among the finest budget-priced earphones we’ve ever heard.
Hint: As above, let us mention that iPod users can get much more accurate sound from the Smokin Buds by turning on the iPod’s “Bass Reducer” setting. On the track above, for examples, this leaves you with plenty of bass power, yet relieves the problem of occasionally oppressive, over-the-top bass.
for this section of the review, I will compare the Smokin Buds both to a comparably priced solution (the Yurtopia Yurphones recently reviewed in Playback) and to a more expensive solution (the Skullcandy Titans).
Smokin Buds vs. Yurtopia Yurphoness
- Smokin Buds offer deeper, more powerful bass.
- The Yurtopias provide a more accurate sound with more nearly neutral tonal balance.
- Noise isolation between the two headphones is comparable, though the fit of the two headphones is very different (the Smokin Buds are true in-ear headphones while the Yurtopias are semi-custom-fitted phones that rest in the wearer’s outer ear).
- The Smokin Buds provide headset functionality whereas the Yurtopias do not.
Smokin’ Buds vs. Titans
- Though the eartips provided with the Smokin Buds and Titans differ in terms of material composition, both are very comfortable and can achieve a good, airtight seal in your ear canals.
- Workmanship fans will appreciated the precision-cut metal housings of the Titans vs. the plastic bodies of the Smokin Buds.
- The Titan uses an 11mm driver vs. the 9mm driver used in the Smokin Bud.
- The Titan is significantly more neutrally balanced and open sounding that the Smokin Bud.
- The Titan is fitted with an inline sliding volume control, whereas the newer generation Smokin Buds come fitted with an inline mic and send/end/track forward switch that provides headset functionality.
The Smokin Buds come with three sizes of soft rubber eartips that make it easy to achieve a good airtight seal in your ear canals. The gently angled housings and cable strain reliefs of the Smokin Buds make them very easy to insert and to adjust.
Smokin Buds ship with a fabric drawstring-equipped carry pouch.
Skullcandy’s Smokin Buds represent a worthwhile step forward from stock iPod-type earbuds, offering a smoother overall sound, more powerful bass, and good isolation from ambient noise. That said, however, they also beg an important question: why settle for some sonic benefits (some of which are a mixed blessing) when, for only a little more moolah, Skullcandy’s Titan in-ear headphones can give you giant sonic improvements?
The answer, perhaps, lies in the sheer handiness of the Smokin Buds headset functions, which make them just the ticket for those who do much of their music listening via cell phones.
SPECS & PRICING
Skullcandy Smokin’ Buds Headset/In-Ear headphones
Frequency Response: 18Hz – 20kHz
- Three sizes of soft rubber eartips (S, M , L)
- Nylon carry pouch with zipper closure.
Warranty: Skullcandy offers an innovative two-part warranty that reflects the company’s involvement in and commitment to extreme sports. According to the Skullcandy Web site, the terms of the warranties are as follows:
“Skullcandy headphones are covered one of two ways, Aggressive Listening, which is defined as:
Aggressive Listening: Skullcandy products that fail or break due to a crazy crash on the mountain or a violent head-banging session... or any other reason that is not a product defect, we will still hook you up! Send in whatever remains of your product, and we will send you a coupon good for 50% off any product in our Online Shop.
Defective Product Replacement: Which is defined as any Skullcandy product that is still in one piece and not working properly or any product damaged in shipping. In this case you will receive a brand new replacement product at no charge. In either case you will need to complete our warranty form.”
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