I’ve reviewed two versions of Radius’ Atomic Bass earphones for Macworld—the $40 standard version ( ) and the $50 headset version ( )—and found both to be solid $50-and-under canalbuds. The company recently updated both models, incorporating a few modest tweaks and lowering the price of the headset version by $10. I had the opportunity to test the new headset, now named the Radius Atomic Bass 2 + Mic Earphones.
Like the original, the Atomic Bass 2 + Mic is a canalbud-style headset. Canalbuds split the difference in design—and usually price—between traditional earbuds and in-ear-canal (“canalphone”) models. (See our in-ear-canal headphone primer for more details.) The earpieces fit partially in the ear canals, so they block some external noise and, ideally, form an acoustic seal that improves bass performance. However, canalbuds don’t block as much noise 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.
The Atomic Bass 2’s earpieces are similar to the capsule shape of the original. Listeners with smaller ears can wear the earpieces with the cable exiting downward and the capsule protruding, or the earpieces can be turned upside down, with the cable draped up and over the ear, allowing for a more-canalphone-like fit for people with larger ears. Radius claims the different cord on the new version increases durability, and it does feel stronger than the cables used in the previous design. The company also says the cable’s rubbery coating helps prevent tangling.
The cables going to the left and right earpieces are now even lengths—the cables differed in length in the previous version so you could drape the longer cable behind the neck—and the remote/microphone module on the left cable uses a slightly different design than before. Unfortunately, this is still a one-button (Play/Pause/Call) remote that does not include the increasingly common volume controls, and I find that single button to be more difficult to press than before.
Three sizes of smaller-than-average silicone eartips are included. The package also contains a round carrying case, but half of the case is mesh rather than solid, so it feels less protective than a fully rigid case.
I found that, for me, wearing the headphones upside-down produced the best results, and I found the fit of the Atomic Bass 2 almost identical to that of the previous version: It was easy to get a good seal, but the positioning was sometimes uncomfortable. The original Atomic Bass had an excellent microphone, and the Atomic Bass 2’s microphone continues to offer good performance—in my testing, voices were as natural and rich as with the iPhone 4’s internal microphone, but with less background noise. None of the headsets I’ve evaluated in the past few months have been able to match the iPhone 4’s internal microphone, so this is impressive performance.
Although Radius claims the Atomic Bass 2 has been tweaked to produce more-balanced audio, it’s actually bassier than I recall the original being (although it’s been almost a year since I last heard that model). The midrange is recessed compared to the bass, and the high frequencies tend to be similarly buried under the bass. The result sounds smooth, but lacks the detail of better canalbuds.
Overall, I don’t like the Atomic Bass 2 relative to the competition as much as I remember liking the original. To be fair, that doesn’t mean that the new model is worse. It’s just that the competition in this price range has improved over the past year. The Atomic Bass may have beaten the $20 and $30 canalbuds I reviewed in 2009, but when I compared the Atomic Bass 2 to the $20 Altec Lansing Muzx Mesh MZX106W
I recently reviewed, I preferred the Mesh, which is less bass-heavy and offers slightly better treble detail. (The Atomic Bass 2 does provide superior bass detail and a remote/mic module, which the Mesh lacks.) I also compared the Atomic Bass 2 to the $50 Skullcandy 50/50 ( ), which, ironically, has even bigger bass than the Atomic Bass, as well as better midrange detail, although I preferred the Atomic Bass 2’s overall balance. Finally, in my review of the first Atomic Bass headset, I think I shortchanged the $49 NuForce NE-7m ( )—in direct comparisons to the Atomic Bass 2, I found the NE-7m to be distinctly better thanks to a more-neutral (but still warm) tonal balance and better detail at all frequencies.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
The Atomic Bass 2 + Mic occupies bit of an awkward price point, given its performance. If you’re willing to sacrifice headset functionality, similar audio quality can be had for $20 less with the Muzx Mesh, and an extra $10 gets you a significant step up in quality with the NuForce NE-7m. For $40, though, the Atomic Bass 2 offers strong bass; pleasant, warm sound; and headset functionality with a great microphone. And it may be a particularly good fit for listeners with small ears.