There doesn’t seem to be any slowing down to the rate that new earphones arrive on the market. Even if I were to use all of my remaining AVForums reviews for 2013 covering the models released so far this year, I’d still come nowhere near the mark. Where once your choices of £100 earphones could literally be held in one hand, you now would need to be wearing a catcher’s mitt to achieve the same effect.
In a market where so many people are now competing for customers, having a unique selling point is increasingly important. There is only so much technology that you can cram into an earphone housing and the basic driver types are the same as they were when the market suddenly took off. Thus far most of the primary ways of making an earphone have featured in a review already so everything we see from now is going to have to find a different way of standing out from the crowd.
New Hampshire based thinksound (who in a modern but still peculiar way don’t capitalise their name) feel that they have a different way of standing out from the crowd. The key design philosophies of thinksound are great sound (to which we can all say ‘good thing too!’) and - more interestingly - environmental sustainability. This is an interesting path to pursue and one that should certainly be encouraged - if it lives up to the brief. Do the thinksound’s deliver sonically while soothing your conscience?
The ts02+mic is one of a four strong range of models being constructed by the company. An identical version is also available less the inline microphone. The basic design is logical enough. Each of the housings contains a single 8mm 'acoustically enhanced’ (how they have been enhanced is unspecified) dynamic driver. At the £99 price point that the thinksound competes at, the dynamic driver is winning out against the balanced armature as the driver of choice and you will need to look to nearer the £150 price point these days to find competition from armature earphones.
In the ‘old days’ this wouldn’t have been a good thing. Dynamic drivers simply couldn’t get close to an armature design in terms of transparency and top end detail. Recently technology has improved in terms of dynamic driver design to close the gap between the two designs where the dynamic driver was inferior while at the same time keeping the key advantage that the dynamic driver has which is superior bass response. The 8mm size of the driver in the thinksound is small enough to keep the housing usefully small as well.
Another area where thinksound has done something that will usefully aid sound quality for most users is in terms of the earpieces. A ts02+mic is supplied with four different sized rubber domes rather than the more common three and this means that there is a better chance of getting the right fit (although given that I normally have to go for the largest pair of domes supplied and didn’t in this case suggests that only the most cavernous eared might benefit). The other area that is very welcome is that the thinksound can make use of the Comply T-200 foam moulds as well. These foam earpieces are designed to be disposable and will wear out much faster than the rubber ones but they offer a considerable boost to sound quality as they yield rather better against the ear canal. They are the next best thing to a custom mould which is not really practical at this price point.
Elsewhere the design of the thinksound is conventional enough. As you might expect at the price, the cord comes with an inline remote allowing for play/pause, skip forward and skip back via various button presses and a microphone for making and receiving calls. The number of devices that this is supposed to be compatible with is considerable so kudos to thinksound for that. Another small but welcome feature is the 3.5mm jack at the end of the cable uses a straight moulded connection rather one mounted at 90 degrees which helps avoid snagging on a trouser pocket and always seems like the more sensible method of terminating a cable to me at least. The housings themselves are described as ‘sweat proof’ as well which should come in handy for any of you that move around above a stroll.
The USP of the thinksound is the environmentally adept design and while I am not able to ascertain beyond all doubt if every claim made of the product is true, the good news is that the decisions taken have resulted in a distinctive and rather appealing earphone. The thinksound uses wood from sustainable locations for the earphone housings (or at least half of them - the front is metal) and the cabling is PVC free. The company makes strenuous efforts to use recycled materials wherever possible and (in the US at least) is putting its money where its mouth is and offering a 25% reduction on a pair of new thinksound earphones if you trade an old pair in to be recycled.
The result is a handsome and well made piece of design. The thinksound manages the nifty trick of feeling fairly substantial without being overly heavy and the standard weak points of any earphone appear to have been dealt with as well as is possible, short of adopting the complex (and costly) rotating cuffs that Shure has developed. They also manage to look like a cut above an ‘ordinary’ headphone without coming across as overly ostentatious. Two finishes are available, ‘Silver Cherry’ which as the name suggests is a lighter finish and the ‘Dark Chocolate’ which was the finish supplied for review.
By far the most successful part of this eco drive is the packaging. Made from recycled materials, it manages to be far nicer to unwrap than the vast majority of the competition as there are no sharp edged bits of plastic or incomprehensible sealed bubbles to negotiate in reaching the earphones. The effect is likely to put you in a far better mood than almost any of the competition. A small cotton bag is supplied to hold the earphones themselves and while I’m not going to pretend that it is as brilliant as the rubber wallet that comes with the Atomic Floyd Superdarts, it is still a neat touch.
The usual suspects were wheeled out for testing the thinksound’s including my Lenovo ThinkPad and iPhone 4 and iPad 3. My wife’s Samsung galaxy was also used to test the inline mic. I also used the Asus Xonar Essence 1 reviewed earlier in the month as a high quality headphone option. As a pair of earphones, the thinksound’s were used on the move and out and about as well as indoors. Material used included lossless and high res audio via Songbird, compressed material through Spotify as well as internet radio and catch up TV services.
Out-of-the-box, the thinksound’s didn’t change their behaviour after a period of running-in which is helpful if you need them to hit the ground running. This is an advantage that dynamic driver models can have over armature designs which can sound thin and unpleasant until they have a few hours on them. As mentioned earlier, the domes that were fitted on the thinksound’s were the right size for me but they are easy to switch if you need a different size.
The first impressions that the thinksound produces are positive. The overall tonal balance that the ts02+mic has is full and pleasingly smooth tonal balance. It is very hard to provoke them into harshness or brightness and even when I used thin and compressed recordings with them they responded well to the challenge and sounded full and rich while they did so. It would be wrong describe the tonal balance as warm because it doesn’t have any of the bloat or bloom that a warm sounding product can exhibit. ‘Civilised’ might be a better term.
There are some very impressive specific attributes to the thinksound as well. The tonality is rich but impressively believable - if something isn’t supposed to sound absolutely enormous it generally doesn’t but voices in particular can be compellingly rich and real without dominating the performance that supports it. Richard Thompson’s new album Electric is a lovely recording and the balance between Thompson’s growly vocals and his understated guitar playing is excellent. Neither interferes with the other and the overall balance has the civilised presentation as before. The improvements in performance with lossless and high res audio are also impressive. The thinksound is able to make gains with this material that is unusual for an earphone that is so sympathetic with compressed audio and if you need something to cover a big range of material doing justice to all of it, this is a good place to start looking.
The other genuinely impressive area of performance is that the thinksound’s manage to create something approaching a believable soundstage which is always a bit of a tall order for an earphone. Whether it is because the drivers are slightly recessed in the housing or they’ve simply been voiced in such a way as to give the illusion of space but if you put something with a bit of scale to it like the score for Dredd and the result is has a sense of size and depth that extends well beyond the end of the ear canal. This lends more conventional classical music a realism that some in ear designs simply can’t achieve.
So far so good but the thinksound isn’t perfect. The bass response is extremely good. As a dynamic driver design this should not be too much of a surprise but the detail it has is in keeping with the rest of the performance. With acoustic and classical music the results are extremely pleasing but when you switch to something electronic or with a heavier bass line, the result can be somewhat overblown. The timing is still good but the low end shove can dominate the performance slightly. There is a sense that the thinksound has either been voiced for acoustic music or has a bit of a bass sting in the tail for people who like that sort of thing. Compared to XTZ’s Earphone 12 when running with the Dirac correction or Musical Fidelity’s EB-50, there is a sense that the thinksound is not quite as even handed but depending on your listening presence, this low end welly might be what you need. The Atomic Floyd Superdarts can provide the same head rattling bass response with greater control but it is twice the price of the thinksound.
Like most in-ear designs, the thinksound is relatively sensitive. It didn’t require much effort from any of the headphone sources it was connected to in order to reach impressive volumes and this helps keep the amount of extraneous noise in recordings down to minimal levels and should mean that even the most feeble of sources will achieve a reasonable volume level with them. As an ear canal design, they do an admirable job of keeping the outside world out and the relatively light weight of the enclosure means that they are comfortable too. The understated appearance won’t attract unwanted attention either. As a final useful aspect of performance, the call quality via the mic was perfectly acceptable.
- Spacious and civilised sound
- Impressively sensitive
- Excellent packaging
- Slightly unruly bass
- No shortage of competition
thinksound ts02+mic In-Ear Earphones Review
The thinksound’s have to be considered at two slightly different levels. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, they are a capable earphone for the asking price. The tonal balance is pleasant and they manage to be detailed and spacious without tipping over into brightness or aggression. The slightly boisterous bass performance will not be everybody’s cup of tea but depending on your listening preferences and whether you can EQ them to control this low end performance slightly better. Finally, they are comfortable and well constructed, well in keeping with the asking price. A look online suggests that this asking price can often be somewhat lower than the list price too.
The environmentally aware aspect of the thinksound puts them in a slightly different context to other earphones at the price. If you do have some environmental concerns to the equipment that we use, the thinksound is at least making an effort to alleviate some of the more serious issues in building the electronics that we use (although they are still made on a completely different continent from both Europe and the thinksound head offices). Everything I see from the design and the company ethos suggests that this is not a gimmick and the packaging in particular is much better than almost anything else on the market. When you combine this sound practice with the rich sonic performance, you have an earphone that is certainly worth seeking out for a trial.
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