There’s a time for “soundtracking,” where noise can help you tune out and get some work down, or help you ignore your surroundings; but there should also be a time for enjoying what you listen to.
Some people will obsess over their listening devices, but I often find that I enjoy mid-range gear. For headphones, “around $100” provides a higher level of quality and finish, better sound quality, and usually a nicer fit–but they’re not so expensive that I’m afraid to use them on a daily basis. Often a pair of “around $100” ‘phones will outlast several pairs of “around $25” headphones.
So when V-MODA sent us a pair of their Vibrato, I jumped at the chance to give them a spin. One can’t have too many headphones right?
The Vibrato are an update to V-MODA’s Vibe II line of ‘phones. In appearance they are very similar. The drivers look like organic alien ray guns, there’s a mic in-line for cell phone use, and the jack is offset 45 degrees to reduce stress on the connector.
The updates are a little hard to detect. The drivers are now made out of a zinc alloy instead of a stainless steel alloy, which isn’t really a detectable change. The cabling is still sporty and fabric covered, but is now Kevlar reinforced, and the inline mic has moved from a single button affair to a three button unit with volume control. A VERY nice touch for iOS devices, but doesn’t seem to work with Samsung Android kit (call answering, yes…volume control, no).
Included in the packaging are a leather carry case, extra silicone ear pads, and sport ear hooks which help secure the headphone cables behind the ear during activity. I was hoping for a 3.5mm to quarter inch adapter, or even maybe an airline adapter, but these aren’t included. Not that a ¼” is an expensive addition, it just would’ve been nice to have.
Upon opening the packaging I was a little disappointed. The headphone drivers on the Vibrato are really small. Ever since my first pair of Sony inner-aural ear buds (ear buds that go INSIDE the ear canal) I’ve found that the larger the earbud drivers, the richer the listening experience would be. Each pair of ‘phones I’ve purchased since then has been progressively bigger than the pair before them. I eventually settled on a pair of Shure SE-115’s, and I’ve generally held them up to be the gold standard of “around $100” gear.
The most important aspect of headphones for me is accuracy. I don’t like mega-bass gear which over emphasizes low end EQ. I also like ‘phones which can place instruments in the stereo spectrum as the artist intended. A simple test is to take an artist known for spreading their instruments (I like Daft Punk or NIN to test with, for example). Plug in your headphones, and if the music sounds like one giant mass of sound right in front of you face, then you have a pair of “not great” headphones.
When testing, I always refer back to my Sennheiser HD-25’s which are professional reference monitors. They’re extremely articulate, and VERY even. A little low end bump as they are closed back headphones, but otherwise they feature a fairly accurate and even EQ. They’re a no-frills pair of $200 cans. I also threw in my Shure’s for a full on battle royal.
My music selection for this comparison was the ‘Tron: Legacy’ soundtrack which features a fantastic blend of orchestral and digital musical elements spread WIDE against the stereo spectrum. It’s a larger than life score, and honestly I didn’t think the V-MODA’s were equal to the challenge…
On the HD-25’s, this score is delicious. There’s so much texture to the instrument choices, lots of strings, and tremor and vibrato. The digital artifacts are all square wave and aggressive. The bass is fat, but not sloppy. Attacks are well defined, and the decay fills the area around your head without interfering with other instruments. It’s a glorious film score, totally makes Tron, and it’s a constant disappointment that it did not receive an academy award nomination opposite ‘The Social Network’s stark minimalism… But I digress…
Played opposite the HD-25’s, my Shure SE115’s sound a little “thicker”. The score is fatter and wider. The bass is more invasive on other instruments, and the detailed buzz of the synths is “smoother”. Strings lose some of their texture, but generally instruments still exist in space around you. It’s still a heady and immersive experience, even if it is lacking some of the crispness of the professional monitors.
It was time for the Vibrato.
They’re good. Really good. Really effing good.
All of the mid and high frequency texture that the SE115’s smooth out is present in the Vibrato. It’s almost as detailed and full an experience as listening on the HD-25’s. The Vibrato don’t quite have the same punch, the same aggression around instrument attacks, they lack some of the bass, but they’re far clearer than the SE115’s. Impulse impacts would make me physically react with a blink, and horns “blatting” would vibrate my eye balls. Delicious…
Now, driver size is still important. The Shure’s are capable of hitting you with much richer bass, but without the detail of the V-MODA’s, a detailed and exacting score like Daft Punk’s starts to feel dull. This is where your individual listening preferences will come into play. Any music where the mix was balanced to favor individual instrument clarity will probably sound better on the Vibrato.
The only clear victory the Shure’s captured was comfort. I really do prefer the foam inserts on the SE115’s over the silicone pads on the V-MODA. For short listening sessions it’s a toss up, but listening for longer periods of time the Shure’s feel better and stay seated in my ear canal better.
So where does that leave us?
The Vibrato are great headphones. I genuinely think they are some of the best sounding headphones you can buy in the “around $100” bracket. The phone features are great (really great for iOS folks, just kinda great for Samsung people). The build quality is fantastic, and though I’ve only been using them for a couple days, they feel like they can handle daily use without overly babying them.
If you find inner-aural ‘phones uncomfortable though, these won’t do much to win you over. That’s about the only serious drawback I can levy.
Oh, and did I mention they came with a paper instruction manual? Cuz they do! I dig that…