The best budget headphones ever? NuForce NE-770x

First a big thank you to both NuForce and those at the Mac-Forums for making this review possible!

Let’s take a look at the NuForce NE-770X dynamic in-ear headphones.

 

Pretty standard fare. You won’t find boutique type packaging for $35, but at least the blister package isn’t fully sealed. There are loose ends to pry apart, so don’t go trying to be a hero by ripping them like the Hulk. It’s not necessary

They come packaged in a basic cardboard box, encased in a fairly easy to open blister package. Nothing fancy. But what would you expect for $35? Like most in-ear headphones sold today, they also come with a cute little draw-string pouch, though in this case, a spiffy white one as opposed to the often seen black color. Nice touch. Also thrown in are three sets of extra ear pieces, in small-medium and large sizes.

 

 

There are four (possibly 5 or maybe 6? ) key components to consider where music listening on a portable device is concerned:

1. How the music is encoded

2. The transport source (ie; Mp3 player)

3. The headphones and/or amplifier used to output the signal

4. How good of a seal you get with the ear pieces

5. How clean are your ears? (I joke but not really)

6. Are the headphones or in ears comfortable to wear for extended periods of  time?

I never joke about the value that each of these factors has on the overall effect of the music being presented to a listener. So many things can shape the way we “hear” music. Some of those things are natural and physical, such as: age, (as we age, we tend to gradually lose the ability to hear certain frequencies) the shape of our ear canal, and most definitely and not the least of reasons: hygiene.

Honestly, I get my ears checked and cleaned almost annually, and it makes all the difference in the world to me. Seeing as how I just went to the doctor, my ears are prime for this review. All frequencies are intact and ready to go!

Details

Encoding: I was having an discussion with my wife and her friend the other day, about the price of music in iTunes, how much artists make and what the cost covers. It turned then, into a discussion about the actual quality of digital music in all of its forms. We were then able to turn to my audio equipment for the sake of reference. I have very decent shelf speakers, a nice Rega Turntable, very nice NAD CD player and a nice amp to hook up my portable audio stuff to. In this case, the iPhone 4. It is obviously personal preference as to which source a person would rather listen to, but it is also undeniable that each source has its own sound signature. My preference is analog. The natural distortion you get from an LP is warm, and the dynamic range is simply something that digital doesn’t seem to match these days, but that’s got a lot to do with how things are recorded.** See below for sound wars reference**

Where digital audio files are concerned, the most we can hope for, is that the recording engineer didn’t make the tracks too “hot”, and that when we either rip the tracks from our CD’s or purchase the digital copies from iTunes, that there are no digital artifacts. If you are taking the route of ripping songs or a whole album in something like iTunes, then you are going to want to be careful about how the tracks are digitally encoded. There are more than a couple of factors to consider when setting an encoding rate

At the very least, I encode my digital files at a rate of 256kbps. It really all depends upon the source and headphones or speakers being used. The thing about using good headphones, and encoding at a high bit rate, is two fold. One, higher encoding rates take longer for your computer to process. So if you’re ripping and encoding albums at a time, you might want to find a sweet spot between quality and encoding time. Secondly, if the recording was done poorly, a good set of headphones will reveal the flaws in the audio, especially if the encoding rate is set high, and especially if the encoding was done with a lossless format as say, ALAC (Apple’s proprietary lossless format, which preserves all the bits of information rather than compressing the file).

Unfortunately, the issue of audio files, equipment and encoding goes well beyond the scope of what this article is supposed to cover, so rather than even try to go in to detail, I’d suggest heading over to places such as Hydrogenaudio forums or Wikipedia for lots of detailed info on why encoding is as important to audio quality as the equipment the music is being played on.

For this review, I am not using any lossless file formats and none of the files are encoded above 320kbps or less than 192kbps. Files vary between Mp3’s and AAC’s.  And since this will be geared towards those using iOS devices, I used only my iPhone 4.  And since these earphones do not require an amplifier, I’ve left that for (hopefully) another review down the road. No external DAC, either. Just earphones and iPhone. Plain and simple, the way I like it these days!

Since these are “budget” headphones, I wasn’t really expecting much out of them, to be quite honest. So I figured that I’d pair them against two other budget earphones for good measure. One pair, costs less than $10 on Amazon, and have been my go-to toss away earphones for a while now. For the price, and where I use them from time to time, (subway) they are fantastic. They are JVC’s HA-FX 30’s. Though I think I have the 30 “b”. The other pair, I JUST bought, and they are Apple’s new “Ear Pods”. So far my impression of the Ear Pods is positive, but I can not use them outside because they simply do not isolate enough for my taste. Indoors however, I can definitely compare them to the NuForce earphones, and they do lend themselves for a good comparison.

Apple Pods (Center)-NuForce (top)-JVC’s (bottom)

Even though the JVC’s have been good for what they are, I immediately removed them from the tests. Simply put, both the Apple pods and the NuForce earphones put them to shame really quickly! The extra $20 for either of the other two would be more than well  worth it IMO. As a matter of fact, I’ll likely purchase a pair of the NuForce NE-700 M’s as my main pair, and use the 770’s as a backup, since the M’s have an in-line mic and volume control for the phone. Although thus far I cannot find them in stock at Amazon.

Fit, comfort and isolation

With every pair of in-ear headphones I have tried, these factors have always played the biggest role in whether or not I was happy with them over time and whether or not I kept them. Comparing Apple’s latest offering to the 770’s, the latter has the upper hand right away. Now, I don’t find the Apple pods uncomfortable per sé, but when I’m outside, I can not stand listening to other people around me, and I really don’t like hearing music bleed out of someone else headphones and vice-versa. That said, the one big niggle I have with the 770’s is that none of the ear pieces gives me a perfectly comfortable seal. Almost perhaps, but not perfect. Hey.. I’m really picky!

My ear canals are quite small, and so usually I’ll have to use the smallest size ear piece available. In this case however, the smallest size leaves a gap between the earphone and my ear canal. So I’ve resigned myself to using the medium size for these.  Unfortunately, because of the fact that the tip is so close to the rest of the earphone body/driver, I can not seat it far enough back for my liking without experiencing a bit of discomfort over time.

Over the ear loop to eliminate noise from movement and a more secure fit. The red marker denotes this as being the RIGHT side ear piece. A nice touch, but in the dark is pretty useless I guess.

Bare Tips

Not all is lost though! Because there is such a big industry with these types of in ear headphones, there are third party alternatives for ear tips. My favorite of them right now, are made by a company named “Comply”. Here are the tips for the 770’s: Foam Comply Ear Tips

They are made of foam, and to my ears, are much more comfortable than the standard silicone ones. They also come in red, black and gray. A pack of 3 will set you back $15 or $20 for a 5 pack. Well worth the price IMO.

Comply T-200’s in Blue

Alright then. Now that we’ve gotten past the more subtle details, I think we should get down to business!

Sound

I find it smart to try different types of music before making any real judgements, and I tend to stay away from recordings that I know to be flawed. Flawed can mean many things, but usually from an engineering point of view, if the final master is cut too hot, you’ll hear a lot of distortion and clipping with no real dynamic range. You might also notice that every track tends to sway in one direction, tonally speaking. That can mean too much bass, not enough mid bass, too forward mids, or too much treble etc. Though you’d really have to be familiar with the different recordings of the same material to get insight on stuff like that. So I hit the iPhone with a range of stuff from piano concerto’s, string quartets, and full orchestral to jazz, rock, rap alternative, vocal music, world music and even, dare I admit.. some country. Well, sorta. If you can really classify Junior Brown as “Country”, then so be it!

The first thing one will hopefully notice is the bass. Bass done wrong will absolutely kill any enthusiasm I have for any headphones, and thankfully, with the 770’s this is definitely not the case. Whew! Let me make this clear first: I am not what today’s indiscriminate kids would call a “bass head”. That term means something very specific to me, and does not align with what anyone means who says things like “Dre’s Beats are the shizzy son!”. I grew up playing guitar, bass and some horns. I DO love bass, but not the kind of muddy, displaced mess that people are so fond of with cans such as Dre’s Beats and their ilk.

The bass found with the 770’s will truly vary given the types of music you throw at them. And this is a really good thing. It is warm and smooth, and when needed, can be punchy too. Is the bass perfect? Definitely not. But I would hardly expect it to be. I’m probably going to continually reference the fact that these are $35 earphones to get the point across that for any negative points these may exhibit, you’d really be grasping at straws. If there’s one “flaw” I can mention about the bass, it would be that it is very prominent. But is that really a negative thing? For these earphones, no. Not in my opinion. And the reason why is very easy to explain.

For as much bass that is present, it does not drown out either the mid tones or the highs. And this is probably more important than anything for the 770’s, because I’ve really not heard that many in-ears in this price range which come close to being this well rounded. Also, if one was to take a listen to music recorded back in the very early 90’s and going back to the 80’s, all of that bass “bloat” tends to disappear anyway. So in actuality, those of you who have an utter disdain for the “lost in space” bloated bass that seems to accompany most music these days when listening to consumer branded audio equipment (in this case headphones), you can thank the music and recording industry for that! Well, mostly the executives wearing suits. They’re the one’s calling the shots, and the engineers have to do what they say, ultimately.

*On a side note, if you want to see how much of a mess the music industry is with regards to this issue, go and Google “The Loudness War”.

That said, I think that the NE-770’s do very well with low end, given the circumstances. And when compared to Apple’s Ear Pods, I can say for sure that I am hearing correctly. Listening to the same tracks with both, the Apple Pod’s bass is not as smooth or rounded and will tend to bleed into the mid range section.

Moving along to the mid range presentation then….

Here is where I have been truly pleasantly surprised, to say the least. With so much presence out of the lower end, I was expecting the mid range to be somewhat muffled and lost in the mix. But no matter what music was thrown at them, the mids remained prominent and also fairly neutral, as far as where one would think of mids, sitting on an EQ curve. In other words, not too forward, and not too recessed. I will admit though, forward mids can be very pleasant when listening to breathy vocalists. At least, that’s my preference.

If I had to categorize the tone of the mid section, I’d say that it errs on the warm side of the spectrum, while managing to retain enough separation from that ever so prominent low end.  This brings with it more surprise, since I’d expect such a characteristic to muddle things up like I’m used to hearing with similarly priced earphones. In fact, I’d say that the mids tend to help save the low end a bit. Where the lows might be a tad soft and slow, the mids make up for this and strike up a nice balance to give the sound that punch it needs in the mid-bass range. Thanks to this combination, one gets a sense of both air and weight, which is great when it comes to tracks that are driven by somewhat dry, breathy vocals. Think Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughan, Julie London, Diana Krall etc… It’s safe to say then, that I approve of the mids!  This leaves us with two more areas to explore before my conclusion.

Highs/Treble

There’s really not much [bad] to say about the highs. They are neither too in your face or tinny *metallic/harsh* sounding, nor are they so recessed that you are craving for them very much. Sure, I’ve heard plenty of headphones and higher end in-ears with smoother and more forward highs, but again… these are $35! Snare drums pop with authority, brushes glide and glisten effortlessly, and rim hits are very snappy. High hats and cymbals decay quite nicely and without that nasty sibilance you’d get with cheap headphones or improperly amp’d sources.Great balance it would seem, is the end result of how the treble functions within the three main frequencies. That end result in terms of sound is more pleasing than I had anticipated them being quite frankly. Again, they may not be perfect.. but at this price range, nothing is.  The bass is abundant but not so much that it bleeds into the mid range, which in its self gives that prominent bass a chair to sit down on and relax, while the highs tend to swing things back into the other direction, totally balancing out any superficial warmth that may be perceived.
This leaves me with one more very important characteristic to ramble on about a bit.

Sound Stage

This is an often overlooked, and under appreciated trait of most headphones (and deservedly so) at the consumer grade level. It’s easy to understand why, when most of today’s music seems to be thrown together in order to get Justin Bieber’s music out to the masses, rather than taking the time to get production to the point of where it might be worth spending more than $50 on a pair of headphones. This in itself is a bit of a fallacy though, considering that people are often misled into spending close to $500 on a pair of truly consumer grade headphones, that are easily bested by a lesser known brand for a fraction of the price! *Beats cough.. cough!*
Sound stage is best described (by me) as a quality in an acoustic environment, whether live or recorded in which the listener is easily able to discern where individual instruments are being projected from, as well as how rich, deep and three dimensional those sounds are. The ability to pick up timbre, subtle changes in volume and even things like which direction the air flow changes when coming from horns, is all a part of sound stage. Even with really good recordings, I have rarely gotten a sense of any sound stage presence at all with pretty much any of the earphones I’ve tried at this price range. The closest I’ve come is with my Etymotic HF 5‘s’s, and those are priced at $150.
I don’t know how or why these 770’s are so different in this respect, but it’s amazing! In this department, they are so open and dynamic, allowing for quite a wide and breathy sound stage. Comparing them to my Etymotics, I’d say they’re even more revealing, which is really quite a surprise too. The sense of depth I get with these is quite astounding, as I can place the most faint breaths of two people within feet of one another! I kind of wish I had some binaural recordings to listen to right now, as that would be really interesting. At the moment I am listening to Sigur Rós’ “Kafari” off of the Saeglopur Japan Only Tour Ep.  A track that lends its self very nicely to the qualities I have just spoken about.

In Closing

What else can I say then really? Not much. These $35 earphones have been a pleasure to use and listen to over the past several days, though I’m very intent upon purchasing some of those Comply foam ear tips, in order to make the experience even better in terms of comfort and isolation. Let me note however, that they do isolate well enough, given the fact they are “dynamic” earphones, and are not supposed to totally suppress all outside noise. And as far as comfort goes, I just happen to have quite small ear canals, so your mileage will most definitely vary.  I left out a few small details, so let me state some:

Cable noise/microphonics: As you can see in the above photos, I wear the cable looped around my ear. This helps with keeping the weight off the cables, supplying a nice stable fit, and will also cancel most noise from microphonics. However, when wearing them downward, I didn’t detect any noise that would distract me from listening to music. Plus the fact that the cable has a chin slider, so when you move it up, that would tidy things up anyway. Good stuff there.

Aesthetics: I think they look rather nice, even if the cable is your typical bland white. The driver housing is clear, giving them a touch of class IMO. The right earpiece has a red marker on it to denote which ear it should go in, and that’s a nice touch for sure. But I kind of wish that headphone manufacturer’s would make more of an effort to make a marker that is able to be felt, in order to determine the ear side, when in the dark. That would be very considerate, no? (Ya hear that NuForce?)

Comfort: I know I’ve already gone over this, but would just like to say to the people over at NuForce *if they’re reading this* that silicone tips don’t necessarily work well for everybody. How about some silicone AND foam tip options? Would be worth another $5 I’d think!

Now, how about a couple more gratuitous pics? :)

NuForce – Etymotic – JVC

 

I hope this review proves to be helpful and informative for those of you looking for a new or replacement set of in-earphones. I highly recommend them, and can answer any questions you guys might have over in the forums.

Thanks for reading!

Doug B

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