Most of our recent headphone reviews have focused on models with an inline remote/mic module, but people on a tight budget who mainly use their headphones with an iPod for music listening may not need this feature. It’s for these people that Altec Lansing designed the Muzx Mesh MZX106W. At $20, the Muzx Mesh is $9 less than buying another set of Apple’s basic earbuds, but is nevertheless a solid upgrade.
As a set of canalbud-style headphones, the Muzx Mesh essentially splits the difference 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 and the cord can produce unwanted microphonic noise in a listener’s ear.
Each of the Muzx Mesh’s earpieces is a standard canalbud shape, with a black-silicone eartip attached to a rubbery, matte-black earpiece with a silver Altec Lansing logo and silver trim. In a nice design touch, the Muzx Mesh’s 1/8-inch headphone plug looks like a smaller version of one of the earpieces. The design is clean, distinctive, and just a little bit funky—attractive for a cheap set of headphones, although you wouldn’t mistake the Mesh for expensive. While our review unit didn’t include any accessories, the retail package includes small, medium, and large pairs of eartips.
Given the Muzx Mesh’s low price, the sound quality is good, but you shouldn’t expect the audio quality to compete with that of models that cost $50 or more. Treble detail is decent—the various instrumental parts in a recording are distinct, but subtle textures in the instruments themselves are often not readily apparent. At this price, though, recovering all the detail in a recording is less important than providing a smooth, pleasant sound, which comes from a good balance of low, midrange, and high frequencies. The Mesh’s audio output is relatively balanced, though with a bit of bass emphasis—in headphones this inexpensive, bass quality and quantity are usually mutually exclusive, and the Muzx Mesh frequently sounds a bit boomy, which can cause listening fatigue after an hour or so.
I previously reviewed JVC’s $20 HA-FX34-N Marshmallow ( ), and although I no longer have this now-discontinued model for a direct comparison, I believe the Muzx Mesh is an improvement, offering better detail than the JVC model. However, Altec Lansing’s review package for the Muzx Mesh included comparably priced and designed models from Skullcandy (the $20 Ink’d) and Sony (the $20 MDR-EX35LP). Though I didn’t evaluate these headphones for a full review, they provided some useful perspective.
Sony’s MDR-EX35LP doesn’t sound as muddy as the Mesh, and provides better detail, although treble and bass are both exaggerated compared to the Mesh. This gives the Sony ‘buds an exciting, dynamic sound, but it also reveals some bass boom (though more distinct and less muddy than that of the Mesh) and harsh treble—the latter of which being the MDR-EX35LP’s biggest flaw. The Skullcandy Ink’d also reveals more treble detail than the Muzx Mesh, sounding less muddy, and produces the most realistic bass balance of the three. Still, though the Ink’s treble is smoother than that of the Sony ‘buds, it still sounds harsh compared to the Mesh. In other words, where the Mesh sounds too thick, the Ink’d sounds too thin. Overall, the Mesh has the most pleasant, relaxed sound, but the worst detail of the three.
What do you get for more money? The next big step up is the $50 NuForce NE-7m ( ), one of my favorite sets of “affordable” canalbuds. The NE-7m is clearly better, offering good tonal balance, much better detail, and far less boominess than the Muzx Mesh, as well as a remote/mic module—but at over twice the price.
Macworld’s buying advice
My criticisms of the Muzx Mesh are considerable, but it’s worth keeping that $20 price tag in mind—this is better performance than I expected for the money. The Muzx Mesh is a solid bargain, and represents a nice upgrade from Apple’s earbuds if you don’t need headset functionality. It’s also an improvement over the other headphones I’ve reviewed in the $30-and-under price range. If you’re willing to spend more, it’s easy to get superior sound. But for those on a budget, or looking for something that’s easily replaced if damaged during a workout or commute, I can recommend the Mesh.