Moshi has been making accessories for Macs for years, but the company recently expanded into the headphone/headset market with the Moshi Audio line. The first product in the line is the Vortex, a stylish $80 headset aimed at fans of rock and hip-hop.
The Vortex is a canalbud-style headset. Canalbuds essentially split the difference—in design, and frequently in price—between traditional earbuds and in-ear-canal (“canalphone”) models. (See our in-ear-canal headphone primer for more details.) Since they fit partially in the ear canal, they block some external noise and 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 canalphones, 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.
Moshi’s tagline is “purveyor of electronics fashion,” and the Vortex’s design supports this claim. The earpieces are dark-gray pyramids, formed from a combination of glossy, matte, and brushed steel, with complementary smoke-gray eartips. The cables are wrapped in dark-gray fabric, an approach I prefer to the more-common rubber and plastic coverings. The effect is a luxurious, clean look—one of my favorites among the canalbuds I’ve tested. Included in Vortex package is a clever triangular spool for storing the headphones and wrapping the cord; one pair each of small, medium, and large silicone eartips; and a pair of foam eartips.
Although Moshi’s design choices might appear aesthetically driven, the company claims those choices have ergonomic and sonic benefits. The earpieces are surprisingly substantial—the heaviest I’ve tested, and notably heavier than those of other solidly constructed models such as the V-moda Remix Remote. The company says this heft prevents the weight of the cable from pulling on each earpiece and disrupting the seal of the eartip in the listener’s ear canal. Moshi also claims the metal used increases bass response. Finally, the core of each silicone eartip is constructed from a stiffer material, which makes it easier to slide the tip onto the earpiece—an approach also used in Apple’s In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic that more manufacturers should incorporate. These cores are also color-coded to make it easy to distinguish between the left and right earpieces.
Although the substantial feel of the earpieces is reassuring, I’m not sure it improves their fit. In fact, the short length of each earpiece made it a bit difficult to fit firmly in my extra-large ears, though I don’t expect most people to have such a problem.
The inline, one-button remote/microphone module—missing the Volume Up and Down buttons of most newer iPhone-focused headphones—is easy to locate and operate. The Vortex’s microphone emphasizes high frequencies, which enhances the comprehensibility of voices but also makes them sound harsh and makes background noise more pronounced. The microphone should be fine for occasional phone calls, but its harsh audio quality can get annoying over extended conversations, and overall sound quality for those on the other end of your calls is worse than with the iPhone 4’s built-in microphone.
As mentioned, Moshi says it purposely voiced the Vortex for hip-hop and rock; in my listening, this translated to big bass. This bass was sometimes clean and clear but more often sounded muddy in the mid- and upper-bass. Midrange and high (treble) frequencies were pleasant and relatively detailed, but when the bass misbehaved, these other frequencies were overwhelmed—this was especially noticeable on rock, jazz, and classical. The effect works better for hip-hop and electronic music, where the Vortex’s tonal balance does a good job suggesting the thump of music at a club. But even with these genres, I sometimes found the bass to be overwhelming.
A couple other canalbud models that emphasize bass or design invite comparison to the Vortex. The $50 Skullcandy 50/50 ( ) has a similarly bassy sound; however, the Vortex’s bass is tighter, its midrange and high frequencies have much better detail, and its design looks and feels more impressive. Like the Vortex, V-moda’s $100 Remix Remote ( ) targets bass lovers and style-conscious listeners. The Remix Remote has better high-frequency detail, while the Vortex claims the edge in the midrange—but only when its bass doesn’t get in the way. With the Remix Remote, mids and highs are in better balance with the bass, and the Remix Remote has the edge in bass quality. (I did prefer the Vortex’s design over that of the Remix Remote, though.)
Macworld’s buying advice
On my initial listens, I was prepared to write off the Vortex as another set of overly bassy canalbuds, but once I spent some time with the Vortex and looked beyond the bass, I found a lot of pluses to its sonic performance. Although similar bass quantity can be had for less, and there are better-balanced models around the same price, the Vortex offers a unique combination of huge bass, good midrange and highs, and excellent design—as long as you don’t mind some bass bloat and you’re not too dependent on the microphone.