capsule review

Scosche's IEM856md In Ear Monitors offer great sound

At a Glance
  • Scosche IEM856md In Ear Monitors

Scosche originally made its name several decades ago by providing aftermarket car-stereo-installation kits, as well as other car-audio equipment and accessories. When the iPod took over the audio-playback market, the company used the opportunity to diversify into the business of making iPod and, later, iOS accessories, including headphones and iPhone-compatible headsets. I previously reviewed the the IDR400m ( ), which I found to be unimpressive. I was even less impressed by another model I auditioned, the IDR350m; it was discontinued before we could review it. Those experiences explain my initial skepticism upon receiving the company’s new IEM856md In Ear Monitors, which come with a $250 price tag. In order to justify that price, the IEM856md had better be vastly superior to its siblings—and indeed it is.

The IEM856md is a canalbud design. Canalbuds split the difference between traditional earbuds and true in-ear-canal (canalphone) models. They’re also usually less expensive than canalphones, although the IEM856md is an exception, falling squarely in canalphone territory. Since they fit partially in the ear canal, canalbuds block some external noise and aim to form an acoustic seal that improves bass performance. However, they don’t block as much sound as true in-ear-canal models, and, as with those models, getting a proper fit can be tricky, the cord can produce unwanted microphonic noise in a listener’s ear, and using the headset function can be weird due to the occlusion effect of having your ears plugged while talking. (See our in-ear-canal headphone primer for more details.)

Upon first examining the IEM856md, you’d be forgiven for not recognizing it as a $250 set of headphones. The earpieces are bullet-shaped and formed from glossy-black plastic with some chrome-colored highlights, including a prominent bass port (the mesh-covered hole visible in the picture above) that caps the back end of the earpiece. (A white version, the IEM856m, is also available; the two models are otherwise identical.) A fettucini-like flat cable, which helps prevent tangles, exits each earpiece at a 90-degree angle; the right side of the split cable hosts a small, chrome-and-black microphone module. A rubbery cable slider lets you cinch the left and right sides of the cable, which join permanently at a beefy, black-and-chrome inline remote-control module. This remote is an Apple-style, three-button version (volume up, volume down, play/pause/call/end) with tactile markings on the buttons to help you distinguish them. The cord exits the remote module and continues down to a 45-degree, 3.5-mm headphone plug.

Rounding out the package are a square, semi-rigid, zippered carrying case with a mesh pocket and a carabiner clip; a soft-leather carrying pouch; a shirt clip that snaps onto the remote; an adapter that splits the IEM856md’s headphone jack into separate headphone and microphone plugs for connecting to a computer; a cleaning cloth; and silicone eartips—specifically, single- and double-flanged versions in small, medium, and large sizes.

Scosche also offers the free tuneQ iOS app, which provides a 10-band, customizable graphic equalizer along with visualization features. I didn’t get much use out of the audio features of the app, but it does include one brilliant feature: a tutorial that walks you through the process of selecting eartips, including playing a 30 Hz test tone that helps confirm that the eartips are properly sealed in your ears.

While the IEM856md may not initially look like a million—or two hundred fifty—bucks, on closer examination it becomes apparent that the build quality is high. Substantial strain relief is used at all the right places, the earpieces feel heavy for their size, and none of the plastic feels cheap.

The earpieces are relatively large, which could cause problems for people with big ear canals who often have to insert canalbuds relatively deep to get a good seal, but I think most users will find them comfortable. The flat cable also does a good job of resisting tangling, although I found the remote’s buttons to have an unsatisfying, mushy action that made them difficult to press. The IEM856md’s microphone performance was mixed but above average—in my testing, voices were clear and natural without undue harshness, but gain was a bit low, so voices were quieter than through the iPhone 4’s built-in microphone.

Balanced, yet dynamic

While the IEM856md’s looks may not attract much attention, Scosche made a particularly interesting choice when designing the earpieces’ internals. Historically, canalphones have used drivers (miniature speakers) based on balanced-armature technology that has a reputation for being accurate but also sometimes light on bass and “polite” sounding. On the other hand, canalbud models have generally used dynamic or moving-coil drivers, which are miniaturized versions of the cone drivers used in traditional loudspeakers. These drivers generally produce impressive bass volume and large dynamic swings, but they aren’t as accurate as balanced-armature models.

Some manufacturers, such as Future Sonics, have attempted to design better moving-coil drivers to match the accuracy of balanced-armature models without sacrificing bass response; others use multiple balanced-armature drivers (up to eight in high-end custom models), or have otherwise tweaked those drivers, to improve bass response. These approaches end up still sacrificing some areas of performance—or they increase the price of the headphones significantly. Scosche’s strategy with the IEM856md, on the other hand, is to to use both a dynamic driver and a balanced armature in each earpiece, letting each driver do what it does best. Ideally, this combination gives the bass impact and dynamics of a moving-coil driver and the accuracy and detail of a balanced-armature driver. The trick isn’t unprecedented—the discontinued SuperFi 5EB from Ultimate Ears was probably the first model to do it, and a few other current models use it, as well—but it’s still rare enough to be an interesting design decision.

So how does this Dr. Moreau-esque approach work out in practice? The IEM856md have a natural, easy sound. High frequencies are well-balanced and never harsh, although they lack some detail compared to the similarly priced, balanced-armature Shure SE315 ( ) canalphones. The midrange frequencies are smooth and sound great over all, but, again, lack a bit of detail when compared directly to the more-accurate SE315. However, the use of a dynamic driver has paid off at the low end, with authoritative bass tones down into the low-bass region. (I heard strong output with a 31.5 Hz test track, with bass volume finally rolling off substantially at 25 Hz.) That bass is also tight for a dynamic-driver design, though still a little loose compared to the SE315.

Overall, the IEM856md’s performance is very good—in fact, I preferred the IEM856md’s balance and dynamics to the SE315, even though the SE315 had the edge in detail. A more-subtle difference between the two models is that music sounded more driven and faster-paced through the SE315. However, I think many listeners will appreciate the IEM856md’s natural sound and bass authority over the SE315’s detail and drive. The SE315 does offer superior ergonomics to those of the IEM856md—the Shure model is much more comfortable for long listening sessions.

I also compared the IEM856md to the $200 Future Sonics Atrio m5 ( ), which uses a single-dynamic-driver design. Just as a comparison with the balanced-armature SE315 highlights the advantages of the IEM856md’s dynamic driver, comparing the Scosche model to the Atrio m5 demonstrates the virtues of including a balanced armature in the IEM856md. These advantages were particularly notable in the IEM856md’s high frequencies, which sounded both more-full-bodied and better-balanced than the Atrio’s comparably thin high frequencies. The IEM856md had a similar edge in midrange production, providing more detail and a more-natural sound than the Atrio. And although bass is the Atrio’s true strong suit, I found that the IEM856md entirely matched the Atrio’s bass performance. The IEM856md is the clear winner in this matchup.

Macworld’s buying advice

At its $250 list price, Scosche’s IEM856md isn’t cheap, but for that price, you get a canalbud headset that offers great, well-balanced sound with no glaring weaknesses. And the substantially lower street prices I’ve seen—$136 on at the time of publication—make the IEM856md and IEM856m potentially great values. Further, you get some of the most-impressive-sounding bass I’ve heard at or below this price point. While Shure’s similarly prcied SE315 may improve upon the IEM856md’s accuracy, you’ll be hard pressed to get both the SE315’s accuracy and the IEM856md’s dynamic bass without spending more. Although its ergonomics leave something to be desired, its sound is satisfying and easy to enjoy, and it shows that Scosche is capable of making a great pair of headphones.

R. Matthew Ward lives in St. Louis and has more than a Scosche—er, skosh—of enthusiasm for audio and music. He writes about these subjects, Apple, and other cool stuff on his personal blog.

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At a Glance
  • Scosche IEM856md In Ear Monitors

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