Past Skullcandy products have not generally been very well-respected on head-fi. On the quest to sonic perfection, the Skullcandy brand is seen as a disinterested observer, chasing instead after the tween crowd with flashy designs and celebrity endorsements.
However, the Skullcany TiTan IEMs began to generate interest after HeadRoom, an online hi-fi retailer with roots in the audiophile community (and Head-fi in particular) placed the TiTans on the 2009 revision of their Top 10 Best Headphones list, a guide generally considered a good starting point for those new to hi-fi. This, coupled with a 5/5 value rating and a rave review featuring statements such as “[…] the SkullCandy Titans easily compete directly with many other in-ear headphones at 3X to 4X their price” caused head-fiers to ask whether headroom seriously considered the TiTans that competitive. Some even went so far as to question the HeadRoom reviewers’ sense of hearing, soundness of mind, or even integrity (after all, the whole review reads like overzealous marketing copy).
What it came down to is a sanity check. Have the good folks at HeadRoom lost their collective mind or are we at head-fi so wrapped up in our niche-brand elitism that we are failing to acknowledge a highly competitive product that has been around for close to a year? Having previously owned the Skullcandy Ink’d buds (which I reviewed here) and auditioned the FMJ IEMs and GI full-size headphones, I was skeptical. Well, what better way to settle the controversy than by opening my wallet (in true head-fi fashion) and laying down $35 for a lovely mint-green pair of these babies.
-Type: Dynamic Driver
-Driver Diameter: 11mm
-Frequency Range: 20~20000Hz
-Plug: 3.5mm, straight
-Cord length: 1.3 meters (4.3 ft)
-Cord type: y-cord
What’s in the box?
-Medium-sized clear single-flange silicone tips
-Two sets of Comply T400 foam tips
-Small clamshell case with mesh lid
-Instruction manual & specsheet (if you can find them)
Appearance & Build Quality
What can I say regarding the appearance of mint-green earphones? Subtlety is not their strong suit. At least Skullcandy kept the cable black - a mint-green one would’ve been entirely too much. The earphones themselves look good with their green metallic finish and matching 3.5mm plug and Y-split (complete with the Skullcandy logo). Unlike the Ink’d buds, Skullcandy actually deemed the TiTans worthy of Left/Right identifiers, which appear as tiny silver letters next to cable entry point. Naturally, the space occupied by the Skullcandy logo on the tail side of the housings could not have been sacrificed.
The housings are made of metal and feel slightly cheap, albeit sturdy. On the upside, the TiTans are much lighter than some the other metal IEMs currently in my possession (e.g. the V-Moda Vibes II and the Monster Turbines).The cabling isn’t too bad either. While slightly thin and stringy above the Y-split, the lower part of the cable feels fairly sturdy. The cable is rubberized and doesn’t tangle much. It also provides a nice balance of memory and flexibility, keeping shape well when wound up.
The real let-down here are the “strain reliefs”. I put the term in quotes because there is no way these can serve their intended function. The relief on the plug is made out of a hard plastic and doesn’t actually yield under stress. The small reliefs on housing entry are even worse – they are wider than the cable requires, made out of a hard plastic, and complete with sharp edges. I can already imagine many TiTan cables suffering a horrible fate at the hands of their respective strain reliefs.
Another point to mention – I am truly confused by the clamshell case that comes with these. Unlike most, the Skullcandy one features a mesh lid. In my understanding, an earphone case is meant to protect from two things – physical stress and dirt. The Skullcandy case does neither of these very well and the rationale behind designing it in this way eludes me. I also don’t quite understand the inclusion of Silicone tips in only one size (M) – this seems to go against the grain of every other manufacturer – but the two included sets of Comply T400 tips are very welcome.
Fit & Comfort
Because of the tiny strain reliefs, the Skullcandy TiTans can be effectively worn cord-up or cord-down. The insertion isn’t very deep either way because of the driver-containing bulge on the housing. Worse than that, when inserted properly and worn cable-down, the bulge rests on my ear. It has fairly sharp edges and starts hurting after an hour or so. As a result, I pretty much have to wear these over-the-ear for any significant length of time, which prompts no complaints from me but may not suit others.
Isolation & Microphonics
As stated above, these don’t allow for particularly deep insertion and they are ported dynamic-driver IEMs. The result is mediocre isolation that can be partially mediated by using the Comply tips.
Microphonics are definitely present in the cable. I actually find these pretty unusable when worn straight-down, but I have to wear them over-the-ear anyway due to the fit issues mentioned above. When worn over-the-ear microphonics are barely present.
All on-the-go listening was done straight from an unamped Sansa Fuze using a selection of tracks in 256-320kbps mp3 format featuring a variety of genres including different subgenres of Rock & Metal, Pop, Acoustic, Blues, Jazz, and Electronica. Benefits of a portable amp are deduced from running the earphones through a 5x gain mini3 connected to the Fuze via a vampire-wire LOD. All critical listening is done via an optical-fed iBasso D10 using a wider selection of tracks in FLAC and Windows Media lossless formats.
Frequency Response Graph
The sound overall is decent. As expected, the bass is the overarching attribute of the sound signature. It is exactly as large as the frequency response curve indicates. I don’t mind big bass when it’s done right but the Titans are only halfway there. While an improvement over the Ink’d, the bass is still fairly muddy. It can be fun on some tracks, especially those with sparse and/or artificially generated bass, but it lacks speed, texture, and control. The treble is somewhat harsh with the stock silicone tips but can be toned down a little with the (included) Comply T400 foamies. The mids and highs are present and can boast some clarity but not much detail. I now know why the kids with Skullcandy buds like to crank the volume to 11 – at my preferred low listening volume, all these produce is “thump, thump, thump” with some musical notes thrown in. A fairly high volume is necessary before the bass bloat stops killing the details in the mids, and that is a no-no in my book. High-end extension is decent but there is no ‘sparkle’ at the top. Without the bass these would actually be pretty cold-sounding. Lastly, terms such as “soundstage” and “positioning” are not applicable here. These don’t sound anywhere near as flat as the Ink’d buds, but they are still very confused about where and how far away things are.
Overall, they definitely aren’t the worst IEMs I’ve heard. While I would never recommend them for critical listening, they can definitely be fun. Note that if you are prone to bass headaches you may want to give these a pass – with the right (or wrong) track they will leave you convulsing uncontrollably on the ground.
I’ve decided to stray from my usual review format and add a comparison section here. For the benefit of those from outside the head-fi community who stumbled on this review by accident, this should outline a few alternatives to the Titans in the same price range and illustrate my general problem with HeadRoom’s evaluation of these.
Soundmagic PL21 ($22)
The PL21 feature a more mainstream sound signature compared to Soundmagic’s higher-end models, the PL30 and PL50. The bass is nowhere near as fat as that of the Titans but they still have plenty of it. They are darker-sounding but on-par with the Titans in detail and clarity. What they bring to they table is a medium-sized soundstage with good positioning. They also offer a much better balance across the spectrum and rarely make me feel like the bass is overshadowing something. They also fit far better than the Skullcandies – their “driver bulge” is farther from the nozzle and doesn’t get in the way.
JVC HA-FXC50 “Micro HD” ($25)
The micro HD earphones from JVC feature tiny drivers positioned at the very tip of the earphone. Their signature is pretty unique in the realm of budget IEMs – the detail and clarity put out by the tiny little driver are hard to match. They have punchy bass and a bright and shiny sound. The treble sparkles nicely and the midrange is smooth with much tighter bass than the Titans.
Meelectronics Ai-M6 ($35)
This is a personal favorite of mine. Compared to the Titans the M6s offer a much more refined sound while maintaining the fun factor. The M6s offer a more controlled but still plenty voluminous bass and much smoother treble. The detail across the range is significantly better and they do an impressive job with instrumental positioning and separation. The signature is more balanced than the Titans, with emphasis on both the high and low ends of the spectrum.
Meelectronics M11 ($35)
These are superbly constructed and extremely comfortable earphones. They are absolutely tiny and offer nearly unparalleled comfort. They also offer a significant improvement in microphonics and isolation over the Titans. They sound much smoother and warmer than the Titans and offer a good bit more detail. Bass quality is also much-improved, with decent texturing and control.
These are just short impressions from switching back and forth between these earphones and the Titans. For more complete impressions of these and other earphones see the review in my sig.
They may well be the best-sounding earphone Skullcandy has ever made, but in pure sound quality they are easily beaten by other manufacturers’ similarly-priced offerings. Still, they are a step in the right direction from the Ink’d and FMJ. The inclusion of Comply tips, for example, is very welcome, but keep in mind that a pair of Comply tips will only last 3-6 weeks with moderate use and they aren’t the cheapest tips to replace. I am sure, however, that like any Skullcandy product the TiTans will often receive massive markdowns. I’d say that for about $20 they are competitive for those who really like their bass.
That said, I think HeadRoom’s inclusion of the Titans in their 10-best list and statement saying that they compete with headphones “3x to 4x their price” (just which exactly?) can come from one of only two things: total lack of experience with budget headphones (also known as the rock-bottom expectations effect) or a deal with Skullcandy’s marketing and product placement team. With their high rating of the Titans, HeadRoom, originally a specialized hi-fi retailer, is committing a travesty against the true hi-fi budget champs – manufacturers more committed to bringing good audio at reasonable prices than having Snoop Dogg sign each of their headphones by hand. I can probably name at least two dozen headphones currently in my possession that sound better than the Titans for under $60 and like to think that money not spent by manufacturers such as Nuforce and Meelectronics on developing their own iphone apps went into improving their product. I would hate to imagine a generation brought up thinking that the sound produced by the Titans is the way music is supposed to sound just because a respected hi-fi retailer gave them an excellent review. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we at head-fi have not yet lost it completely.
Edited by ljokerl - 8/27/10 at 1:34pm