Tech, Autos, & Gear in Layman's Terms Since 2006

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September 4, 2009 • Reviews

Review: iBlink Earbuds

iBlink_Black_Blue

Back when I was much younger headphones were headphones – of sure there was a wide range of quality, but in general you were getting two padded speakers that clapped over your ears. Later, when the Sony Walkman and other portable products arrived around 1980, much smaller on-ear headphones arrived to support those products. The 1990’s brought us earbuds and other varieties of on-ear, around-ear, and in-ear products. Ear-canal audio products are the most recent, offering the portability of earbuds with a better frequency response range and noise isolation. There are so many products of each type that a trip to the earphone aisle of your local superstore will be a dizzying experience. In a market saturated with me-too products with decent quality sound and build, the folks at iBlink hope to expand that value proposition!

The Hype:
* Patented LED lighting technology with bass boost and noise isolations
* Lights flash to the sound output of any device with a 3.5mm headphone jack
* Volume level of music device controls the brightness of the flashing lights
* Light can be turned on or off while user is listening to music
* Cord length: 44-Inch

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The Reality:
At this point, I think I have just about every sort of earphone ever made somewhere in my house, from 35-year old headphones suitable for 8-track listening, right up to the wonderful AblePlanet gaming headset I gushed over recently. One thing we have is a set of $20 in-ear ‘canal-buds’ that my older son had bought as a gift for a birthday party that never happened. Then we moved and … well, they are ours. So my basic thought was this – I wanted to compare these to the Ableplanet for reference, then do a test against my iPod earbuds and the canal-buds.

Of course, the main draw for these earbuds is the blinking function, so let’s get right to that. My assumption when opening the package was that these were pretty much a gimmick-driven product that would quickly lose their appeal. I will discuss how these fare against that assumption later, but for now I just wanted to provide that context because I considered testing the blinking capability, the recharging functionality, and the overall fun-factor of the lighting system as fundamental to the review. That is because it is the key differentiating factor in a sea of low-priced competitors.

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The iBlinks come with a small USB charging cable that plugs into a module along the cord that houses the small power module, on/off switch and a set of lights. Charging is as simple as connecting the cord to a USB port and plugging it into the module. It doesn’t try to do anything – it just draws a small amount of power. Once charged, you activate the lights with the on/off switch, then start the music and let the blinking begin!

How do the lights work? Two areas to look at – brightness and ‘blink to the beat’. In terms of brightness, they were strong enough that during a long, late-night drive home from the State Fair last week I had to ask my younger son sitting in the back seat to turn them off because they were distracting. Honestly, at first I thought they were police flashers they lit up the car so much!

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As for the blink-to-the-beat functionality – it works great, and is an absolute draw. It does exactly what you would expect – when the beat is pulsing so are the lights; when there is silence there is darkness; and when the music alternates loud and soft so does the brightness of the lights. My kids love it and so do their friends and any other kids who see it. Adults, though, find it cool but think about it in context of their kids – they ask ‘how long until these become terribly annoying’. My answer – they really never do. As I mentioned, in the car the lights can be distracting, but they are simple to switch off.

So in terms of the lights – they absolutely deliver and are worth a price premium over standard earbuds for the target audience. That just leaves the audio.

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The entry point for ‘canal-buds’ is fairly low: all they have to do is enhance the listening experience over standard earbuds to succeed at sounding better. That is fairly easy since the simple fact that they isolate the ear canal blocks external noise and provides more direct translation of sound to the ear drum. Of course, there is a trade-off: for many people it is difficult to get a good in-ear fit. Typically canal-buds provide a few sets of gel covers to suit most listeners. Once you find the set that fits best, you can be fairly certain that most off-the-shelf canal-buds will sound at least as good as stock earbuds you get with a MP3 player.

In my opinion, before I’m willing to spend even a modest $25 on earbuds they have to do more than just not sound worse than my iPod earbuds. So the first thing I did was just try them out, switching from my iPod earbuds to the iBlinks. They immediately isolated me from environmental noise and allowed better focus on what I was listening to at the moment (which just happened to be the gorgeous score to Icewind Dale by Jeremy Soule). I felt that I could hear more details and that the low frequency response was improved. To keep things in perspective, I switched to the AblePlanet and was reminded at what level the iBlinks compete – they aren’t audiophile gear!

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So the iBlinks provide better listening than my iPod earbuds, but nowhere near the performance of the AblePlanet headphones. The most important question was how they compare to a set of basic canal-buds. The ones we have list for $20 but we got them for $16, which means about a $9 differential from the iBlinks. So I returned to my laptop and used the other canal-buds to listen to the same soundtrack – and got the exact same results as with the iBlinks. Sound enhancement seemed to be due to fundamental design rather than truly enhanced audio electronics compared to the other canal-buds (which also claimed enhanced bass response and sound isolation).

Next I took both my kids iPods (identical 4GB ‘fatty’ Nanos) and loaded three songs on them – Blue In Green from Miles Davis ‘Kind of Blue’, Blush Response from the Blade Runner soundtrack by Vangelis, and Young Man Blues from the Who movie soundtrack Kids Are Alright. These three sounds provide a tremendous breadth of loud and soft music, of heavy electronic sweeps and quiet piano moments, and also a heavy rock guitar-driven song. I put the iBlinks on one and the other canal-buds in the other.

The sound quality was good and both provided a solid low-frequency response, but after listening again with my trusty iPod earbuds I was less than thrilled with the overall sound of either. The audio of both sets of canal-buds was muffled and sounded clipped and compressed, with the synth sweeps of Blade Runner sounding distorted and the depths of interaction in Blue in Green coming across hollow and shallow. After these repeated listening I needed to cleanse my soul by a final listening with the AblePlanet headphones to ensure that the issues were with the cheaper earbuds – and they were. Of course, these sets of earbuds are targeted for the younger listener on-the-go, dealing with a noisy environment and limited budget, and the sound quality is perfectly suited to that market. They just aren’t going to hold up under close audiophile scrutiny – nor should they at this price.

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My final complaint is with the build quality. Early iPod earbuds felt cheap, especially at the junctions and connections. As time has progressed, so has the robustness of their build quality – they are still cheap, but feel like they are made to last at least as long as your iPod. The iBlinks – similar to the other set of canal-buds – certainly don’t feel like they will be around longer than my iPod, and the thin wiring and flimsy junctions seem unlikely to withstand a beating from heavy use by my kids. I took a comparison photo above, but it really doesn’t do justice showing the difference in thickness and the robustness of the connector link. Even the earbuds themselves are fairly light and flimsy and don’t feel like they would last long in a kids’ pocket or backpack before getting broken. The gels for fitting different size ears are easy to replace – which is good, except that they are also easy to lose because they will fall off when tossed in a backpack. My younger son already lost one of the gels that fit him best, forcing him to adapt to a different set. This is a general problem with these types of earbuds and not specific to iBlink.

Overall I have mixed feelings about the iBlink earbuds. The main differentiating feature – the blinking lights – is an absolute hit and works perfectly. It is definitely worth spending a few extra dollars to get this feature, especially for kids and teens. But the earbuds themselves are nothing particularly special. They have decent sound and are reasonably well made, and are right in line with the $20 earbuds we had previously bought in that regard. That would mean a $5 premium for the blinking lights, which is actually pretty reasonable based on what my kids think about the ‘coolness factor’. However, as I mentioned before, we only paid $16 for the earbuds, and the $25 is a discounted Amazon.com price, making the differential closer to $9. Based on the testing I did, that makes it a tougher value proposition. These are still very good earbuds, but in my opinion they are overpriced by a few dollars based on the features and performance they deliver.

Where to Buy: Amazon.com

Price: $24.99 ($29.99 direct from iBlink)

What I Like:
– Decent sound quality
– Fun blinking-with-beat technology
– Can turn off blinking and just use as earphones

What Needs Improvement:
– Sound quality not noticeably better than cheaper alternatives
– Build quality not noticeably better than cheaper alternatives

2 Responses to " Review: iBlink Earbuds "

  1. jkj1962 says:

    “Ear-canal audio products are the most recent…”

    Actually, technically, ear-canal devices have been around since….forever. Many, many portable transistor radios from the 50’s and 60’s (and on into the 70’s and 80’s) included a mono “ear-canal” earphone. While not cusioned, and only mono, they were sound-isolating, relying on the wearer’s inner ear skin for the seal. The “speaker” had a metal cone, with either a magnetic or crystal driver. They were tinny, with no bass, but so were the radios they were attached to.

    True, today’s are MUCH better, but they’re older than you’d think.

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