In our primer on in-ear-canal headphones (http://playlistmag.com/features/2007/01/canalphones/index.php), we described the increasingly popular genre of headphones we call canalbuds. Instead of sealing firmly inside your ear canals using foam or flanged-rubber eartips, like true in-ear-canal headphones, these models have small rubber eartips that sit at the ends of your ear canals -- they don't seal out as much external noise, and they tend to not sound as good, but they're easier to put in and take out, and they're more comfortable for many listeners.
Until recently, my top pick in this genre of headphones had been Sennheiser's CX300. But I've got a new favorite: V-Moda's Vibe. Like the CX300 and a number of popular canalbuds from Sony, the Vibe includes three pairs of silicone eartips to fit a variety of ears; I found the Vibe to be quite comfortable and, with the right size eartips, to block out a decent degree of external noise -- nothing like the near-total noise isolation of true in-ear-canal headphones, but good enough for use at the gym or other places where you want to block out a good amount of sound without totally shutting yourself off from the world.
But that's where the design similarities end. Unlike other canalbuds, the Vibe is made of metal alloy and sports a unique and attractive design. The main body of each earpiece is smooth metal, with a colored, textured ring around it and a matching-color endcap. Four models are available: Flashback Chrome (chrome with black trim and clear eartips and cables), Gunmetal Black (smokey green with black trim, eartips, and cables), LaMocha (gold with maroon trim, clear eartips, and black cables, and Red Roxx (metallic red with black trim, black eartips, and red cables). The headphone-plug cover and the metal Y-connector in the middle of the cable are also metal and match the main color of the earpieces. Yet despite this metal construction, the Vibe weighs just 12 grams. Although heavier than the CX300 as a whole, each earpiece is surprisingly lightweight, and small enough that these are among the most comfortable canalbuds I've tested.
(Note: On the first Vibe sample we received, the metal headphone-plug cover separated from the headphone plug itself; this was a purely cosmetic issue, as the headphones still worked perfectly. Given that two subsequent samples didn't exhibit this issue, and we've had no similar issues with any other V-Moda headphones we've tested, our conclusion was that this was an isolated issue. V-Moda told Playlist that the rate of manufacturing defects for the company's headphones is well below typical levels for these types of products; indeed, we've been impressed by the build quality of all three V-Moda models we've reviewed.)
Like Sennheiser's CX300, I don't put the Vibe on par with most true in-ear-canal headphones when it comes to sound quality. But then again, it's tough to find a good pair of in-ear-canal headphones at or below the Vibe's $100 price tag. (Ultimate Ears' super.fi 3 Studio is the most well-rounded under $100, but it can't match the Vibe in terms of comfort or convenience.) And as canalbuds go, the Vibe's audio quality is very good, placing it alongside the CX300 as the best in the class. However, each provides a different type of sound. The CX300 has better treble performance and tight, extended bass, whereas the Vibe gives you stronger bass and midrange for a richer, warmer overall sound. (The Vibe may actually have too much bass for some listeners: V-Moda emphasizes the low end on the Vibe to give them a fuller sound. That said, although this bass emphasis is easy to hear, I personally didn't find it to be offensive; in fact, when using the Vibe as a portable headphone -- out and about, at the gym, etc. -- I found it to be a welcome addition.) I might describe the CX300 as a bit more accurate, whereas the Vibe could be described as, well, fun.
The Vibe has three other advantages over the CX300 that make it my current canalbud favorite. The first is that, at least in my ears, it was easier to get a good seal with the Vibe's earpieces and eartips, and those earpieces didn't fall out as easily as the CX300's; since good bass response and noise isolation are based on a good seal, this makes it easier to enjoy the Vibe. Second, the Vibe's cable was much less microphonic than that of the CX300; bumps and scrapes to the cables weren't transferred as loudly to my ears. Finally, I personally prefer the Vibe's symmetrical cable design to the CX300's asymmetrical cables.
In fact, these characteristics, along with the Vibe's bass response, make the Vibe a great workout companion. Although it's tough to run with canalbuds and in-ear-canal headphones -- thanks to both microphonics and the tendency for these models to fall out, or at least come loose, when running, reducing bass response -- the Vibe has become my headphone of choice for the gym.
Included with the Vibe is a leather carrying pouch and a "modawrap" cable manager, similar to Sumajin's Smartwrap (also reviewed here on Playlist).
If you're in the market for in-ear headphones, but find true in-ear-canal models to be too uncomfortable (or too isolating), give the Vibe a try. At $100, these are the most expensive canalbuds we've tested, but they're comfortable, sound great, and are among the most attractive headphones you'll find anywhere.