Toward the end of 2008 Monster Cable announced the release of ambitious new in-ear headphones called the “Turbine In-Ear Speakers,” priced at $150. Three things caught my attention in this announcement.
First, Monster stated that the Turbines were “personally designed by (Monster CEO and founder) Noel Lee, undergoing three years of rigorous research, development, and refinement.” Frankly, it’s uncommon for the heads of large companies to take such a personal, hands-on role in creating individual new products, so I was eager to see how Lee’s brainchild would sound.
Second, the Turbines were announced with the same price as another new high-performance in-ear headphone from Monster (namely, the Beats by Dre Tours reviewed elsewhere in this issue), which led me to wonder if the products might be one and the same. The answer—as you’ll see if you read both reviews—is that they are actually quite different (though both have merit).
Third, I was struck by Monster’s promise that the Turbines deliver sound comparable to that of “full-size high-end speakers”—a claim I’d ordinarily be inclined to discount as mere marketing hyperbole. At CES 2009, however, Noel Lee spoke convincingly of his desire to offer the Turbines as a means of making legitimate high-end sound accessible to a new generation of listeners who want portable solutions and who could not manage the costs or space requirement associated with traditional high-end loudspeakers.
Does the Turbine meet Lee’s ambitious goals? In many ways, I think it does.
Consider this headphones if: you know and love genuinely accurate sound, or if you are the sort of person who enjoys “going deep” to savor the rich inner details and textures that can spell the difference between good recordings and great ones. In many respects, these no-nonsense in-ear ‘phones can compete with models twice their price.
Look elsewhere if: you seek headphones that add subtle (or perhaps not-so-subtle) sonic colorations calculated to appeal to specific tastes or sonic preferences. Like faithful and factual news reporters, the Turbines consistently “tell it like it is,” without injecting sonic editorial embellishments of their own.
Ratings (relative to comparably-priced in-ear headphones):
- Tonal balance: 9
- Clarity: 9
- Dynamics: 9
- Comfort/Fit: 9
- Sensitivity: 9
- Value: 9
As is often the case with accomplished full-range loudspeakers, the sonic goodness of the Turbine headphones starts right in the heart of the midrange (where most of the music really happens), and then spreads outwards from there to encompass high and low frequency extremes. When you first put the Turbines on, you’re likely to notice how smooth and evenly balanced their midrange frequencies are, or to note their easygoing, unforced clarity (sonic details unfold naturally without histrionics or artificial highlighting). Next you’ll notice how the Turbine’s bass provides rich yet taut and powerful foundational support for the music, while steering clear of pockets of boominess or bloated excess. Finally, you’ll find the Turbine’s highs are clear, extended, and reasonably detailed, yet without applying false layers treble “sheen” on top of high-frequency harmonics. In short, the Turbine’s core sound is accurate, well balanced, and fundamentally “honest."
If you’re willing to spend twice what the Turbines cost (or more) you can—if you search carefully—find ‘phones that offer a little bit more detail, resolution, and refinement, but in terms of accurate tonal balance the Turbines can compete with the best I’ve yet heard.
Let me use two recordings to illustrate the Turbines’ real-world performance.
Sometimes the simplest recordings can be the most revealing, and so it is with British jazz vocalist Norma Winstone’s rendition of the Cole Porter song “Everytime We Say Goodbye” from Distances [ECM]. The track opens with sparse instrumentation—just the sound of Klaus Gesing’s lilting sax and Winstone’s breathy, nuanced voice, so that even the smallest details and textures are laid bare. The Turbine’s answered the call by nailing the reedy, contemplative, almost melancholy sound of Gesing’s sax, while revealing layer upon layer of tonal colors and subtle points of emphasis in Winstone’s voice. In a recording like this one there is no place for a headphone to hide: it either gets the fundamentals right, or its colorations are instantly exposed—a test the Turbines passed with flying colors.
But as lovely though the Turbines can be on delicate material, they also have sufficient grunt and moxie to hold their own on more full-bodied fare. A good example would be their sound on “There Goes The Neighborhood” from Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions [A&M]. The track has several key core sonic elements: an absolutely enormous-sounding kick drum, two raw and grindingly distorted electric guitars, a vigorously loping electric bass, barking saxes applied mostly as accents and, of course, Crow’s own feisty and sometimes howling vocals. The Turbines were impressive on this track, partly because they kept their composure when multiple, powerful bass instruments were holding forth at once, and partly because they so effortlessly delineated the multiple, raucous midrange voices performing at full song.
The point I’m hoping to get across is that the Turbines are versatile performers that can capture both the sound and “feel” of quite diverse types of music—perhaps their greatest strength.
The Turbines are very light and their soft silicone eartips (similar to those provided with Monster’s Beats by Dre Tours) feel great and seal well. The Turbines are a just-right size: big enough to grasp easily, yet small enough to adjust easily for an optimal fit. The Turbine’s compact, metal housings (which are patterned after the beefy “Turbine” RCA jacks that Monster provides on many of its high-end audio cables) have a reassuringly solid feel and are said to help fight unwanted resonance.
Unfortunately, the Turbines don’t get the cool new “tangle-free” signal cables Monster created for the Beats by Dre Tours ‘phones. But the good news is that they do get cables featuring the firm’s signature “MicroStrand” conductors arranged in a patented “Magnetic FluxTube” configuration.
Monster Cable’s Turbines are wonderfully versatile, well-balanced and accurate in-ear headphones. Though not cheap at $150, they are worth every red cent; to do better (and then only a little better), you’d need to spend about twice as much (or maybe more). Self-proclaimed “Head Monster” Noel Lee has done music lovers everywhere a great favor in creating this product.
SPECS & PRICING
Monster Cable Turbine in-ear headphones
Accessories: Three pairs of round rubber eartips (S, M, L), two sets of triple-flange “airlock” eartips (S, L) and carrying case
Weight: Not specified
Sensitivity: Not specified