One of the most important upgrades anyone can do for a portable media player is to buy a new set of earphones. The stock set that ships with iPods or most other players perform pretty poorly when you compare them to the better units on the market. Of course, better sets often cost as much or more than the player you’re connecting them to. That seems radical, until you compare it to your home listening system. It’s easy–in fact it’s even hard not to spend more on your speakers than you do on your receiver and CD player. So why not splurge on the speakers you stick in your ears?
Phiaton, a newcomer to the market, falls into the high-end category of head speakers. Their first product was a finely wrought set of over-the-head cones, which we found to deliver clean, well-balanced sound and atypical comfort. The company’s latest offering, the PS 200, is a set of earphones with an asking price of $250. They come with a stiff carrying case, which is a nice addition, but my guess is that most users are like me and just wrap their phones around their iPod and don’t bother with a separate case. They also come with a 2-prong adapter for airplane audio jacks.
The PS 200s are the in-ear, sound isolation variety with flexible silicon inserts to fit different ear sizes. The black and chrome design gives them a cyberpunk look. They appear sturdily built with a gold-plated jack and fairly thick casing around the wire, which makes them a little more tangle-resistant than others. Phaiton says they use a dual-speaker design for full-range sound. They don’t appear to be ported like recent models I’ve used from Bose and Denon, but they’re also less bulky than the Future Sonics I reviewed a few months ago.
The Phiatons can be extremely comfortable, but you have to be sure to put the right flexible sleeve over them for the perfect fit. I first tried the medium sleeves and liked the fit, but wanted to see if I could get the phones a littler further in my ears with the small sleeves. That worked, to a degree, but the flare design of the exterior made them extremely uncomfortable, so I switched back to the medium sleeves.
I compared the earphones to several other high-end models costing $100 and up as well as some more basic models selling for about $30. The Phiatons easily outperformed the cheap models in clarity and dynamic range. Among the high-end competitors, the results depend on what you’re looking for. While they produced more bass than the cheap sets, its wasn’t an overwhelming amount of bass, which may be a good thing. Where they really stood out for me was in the high and mid ranges. There the Phiatons produced impressive clarity and detail.
One problem the Phiatons have is that the canal in the sleeves where the sound comes out is smaller than other models. The extremely small hole gets clogged easier than others, a lot easier. And don’t ask me if I clean my ears smartass. Cleaning the inside of the sleeves requires something like a paper clip (Future Sonics actually supplies a tool to do this). You’ll get much better sound out of these if you clean them regularly. Some brands — Shure is one — offer disposable sleeves so you can avoid the cleaning process, but that means you need to keep buying replacements.
Maintenance aside, these are nicely designed upgrades for any portable player. Their sound makeup isn’t for people who want deep, thumping bass, but they’re great for listeners who want a well-balanced, clear sound. Currently they’re only available through the company’s Web site and some online dealers such as Amazon.
Phiaton PS 200