Say you’re headed out on a trip, but you’ve lost the headphones that came with your phone (or maybe you just can’t stand them any more) and those throw-away ‘buds you picked up at the airport last trip…well, you probably threw them away. You need something that’s inexpensive and sounds decent. What do you do?
Klipsch hopes you’ll pass by a gazillion other earbud choices and pick up its latest model, the S3M. Convenient, conservatively stylish, and priced right (at $50) the S3M are an enticing choice from a company that knows good sound. But do Klipsch’s bottom-barrel earbuds sound any better than the pair you bought (and subsequently threw away) the last time you were jet-setting? We recently went ears-on with the S3M to find out.
Out of the box
Removing the S3M from their packaging takes mere seconds – handy if you wind up grabbing up a set while dashing across the terminal to catch your flight. Inside you’ll find a small travel case made of black canvas with two more sizes of eartips and a small clip hiding inside.
Features and design
The S3M have a funky yet understated style paired with a vivid color scheme. We received a set in deep blue, but they also come in a host of other colors including white, red, jade, and black. The glossy buds are shaped into cones cut at a 45 degree angle at the top. The S3M are monogrammed with a small Klipsch logo on the side, with L and R indicators hiding on the underside of each. Pulling away one of the silicone tips reveals a tiny plastic extension about the size of a pen tip. Inside rest 5.8mm dynamic drivers, which are among the smallest we’ve come across.
The rubberized cable extending from each earbud provides another set of stereo indicators, but these, too, are a chore to find. Fortunately, the earbuds’ sharp angles provide an easy guide once you know which way they fit. Another clue is provided by the single-button control microphone which resides about six inches below the right earpiece.
We’re pleased to say that the S3M are one of the most comfy sets of in-ears we’ve auditioned in a long while. The hard angle of the driver arms seemed perfectly tailored to our ears and the silicone eartips felt silky smooth. Our only gripe: The tips stick out quite a way from our ear cavity – even a mild gust of wind had them whistling obtrusively.
Klipsch markets the S3M as designed specifically for use with a mobile device (which seems a little obvious). Accordingly, we tested the set by listening to a wide variety of music through an iPhone 5.
The tiny S3M delivered a light and occasionally brilliant burst of clarity, outlining lots of detail for such inexpensive earbuds. They also did an admirable job of delineating individual instruments. Unfortunately, they did so by carving out a massive swath of the midrange and upper bass regions. Even more troubling was the S3M’s sharp display of sibilance from vocals and the upper tier of instrumentation, creating a harsh clip to the sound that was difficult to withstand on many of the tracks we listened to.
… listening to artists as varied as Elliott Smith and Bob Marley, vocals continually had a sharp bite…
After an initial slap to the face by searing percussion and vocals from Pearl Jam’s “Comatose” and Ryan Adams’ “Magnolia Mountain”, we gave the headset a good 10 hours of break-in time, which seemed to slightly tame the S3M’s cellophane crackle. Still, listening to artists as varied as Elliott Smith and Bob Marley, vocals continually had a sharp bite, not only on the usual danger zone consonants, but also in the thinly drawn sustain of the tone. Snare came through with flat, papery snaps that sounded almost toyish, and upper frequency percussion like crash cymbals and cowbells were often painful, forcing us to lower the volume as if backing away from a roaring flame.
The S3M fared best when we fed the headset older recordings, or those recorded in the classic rock style, with layers of tape saturation and darker overall coloring. Tracks from 70’s folk artists like James Taylor and the rich recordings from Nickel Creek’s eponymous album were much smoother, and even pleasant, though we still found the midrange a bit dainty for our taste. However, brighter recordings like Van Halen’s “Girl Gone Bad” started out hot, and when the vocals and crash cymbals came together during the first verse, high frequency chaos ensued.
As we listened on, we noticed some decent force in the very lowest registers, adding a good pump to kick drums and bass. But the power didn’t extend very far, so toms and other instruments that rely on lower midrange warmth were often hung out to dry, showing a pale reflection of their inherent sound. And always, the thin blade of the ‘S’ consonant seemed to cut through with blitzkrieg force.
There’s this persistent Goldilocks theme that plagues budget headphones: this one’s too bass-y, that one has too much bite in the treble. In our quest for value, we’re continually challenged to find a sound that’s “just right.” Unfortunately, the Klipsch S3M didn’t bust that trend for us. And that’s too bad, because the company’s Image One, S4 series and X10i remain ferocious contenders. Still, unless you like your cymbals super spicy, and sibilants with a serpentine flare, we recommend you keep on looking. We will too.
- Good clarity and instrumental separation
- Decent low end power
- Cool, comfortable design
- Extremely sharp upper register