Heard alongside the X10i, the Image One shows certain sonic similarities, though its voicing is by no means the same. Specifically, the tonal balance of the Image One is tilted considerably further toward the warmth end of the spectrum, meaning that it deliver very powerful, punchy bass—albeit, bass that is noticeably more prominent than strict textbook accuracy would require.
I’m of two minds on this. On one hand, I’m a fan (and would encourage you to be fans) of accuracy, pure and simple, my thought being that sonic accuracy is one of those gifts that keeps on giving—consistently letting you hear what the record producer heard, whether for better or for worse. On the other hand, it pays to consider carefully what environments you are likely to encounter when listening (an office, for example, is a lot more quiet than, say, riding on a bus or train).
The Image One is a pleasant-sounding headphone, to be sure, but not one that I would call strictly accurate, owing to its bass forwardness. But before jumping to conclusions, let me point out that the real world of on-the-go listening introduces sonic variables that can be difficult to foresee, including environments where, more often than not, there can be lots of low-frequency noise present (more noise than you might at first think). When used in such real-world environments, the Image One’s tonal balance starts to make perfect sense, in that the Image One’s powerful bass can sound thoroughly natural and accurate under circumstances where low-frequency noise would partially overwhelm or “block out” the bass output of other ‘phones.
The mids and highs of the Image One are well balanced and remind me a bit of the vibrant sound of Klipsch’s Image S4i earphones. Purity and detail are good, though not quite up to the standard set by the tiny but mighty Image X10i flagship headphones. A good level of neutrality is maintained from the lower midrange right on up to the highest highs.
Two points I can’t emphasize strongly enough are that the Image Ones are sensitive and easy-to-drive. When I listen to many headphones through iPods, I have the sense that dynamics are not quite everything they should be, which leaves me wanting to reach for a high-quality portable amp to help provide some extra sonic “nourishment.” Not so with the Image Ones; their sound is powerful and expressive when driven by an iPod alone, so that using an add-on portable amp is more a matter of personal choice than of necessity. This, to my way of thinking, is one of the coolest aspects of the Image One.
The track “Palmyra” from Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer’s Music for Two [Sony Classical] proved useful and revealing in terms of showing both the strengths and drawbacks of the Image Ones. For those of you not familiar with this gorgeous sounding disc, let me supply a bit of background. Bela Fleck, as many of you know, is a master banjoist who is perhaps best known for his eclectic jazz/folk/fusion work with his all-star band Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. But what is perhaps less obvious (given that we rarely think of the banjo in this context) is that Fleck has serious classical/contemporary music chops as well. Edgar Meyer, in turn, is a virtuoso acoustic bassist and contemporary classical music composer who is every bit as much at home performing with jazz/folk/fusion/rock artists as he is in symphonic or chamber music contexts. But put Fleck and Meyer together and you’ve got a recipe for pure magic, which is what you get when you listen to the two master instrumentalists collaborate for a series of serious (yet also playful) duet in Music for Two.
The distinctive attack and decay of Fleck’s intricate banjo lines on “Palmyra”, along with Meyer’s upper register acoustic bass passages, gives the midrange and high-end of the One’s a workout, and they do not disappoint. Banjo, especially when played by an artist of Fleck’s caliber, is a deceptively difficult instrument to reproduce. The problem that many headphones (and loudspeakers) have is that they tend to make banjos sound trite and “boingy”—missing completely the subtle textural and timbral shadings of which the instrument is capable. The Image One has no such problems; it captures the subtly melancholic tonality that Fleck elicits from his banjo, and also renders the amazingly high-pitched yet earthy sound of Meyer’s upper register playing on the bass (rather than making the bass sound like a big, overblown cello). Credit it this performance to the Image One’s smooth, evenly balanced mids and highs. Detailing throughout the track was very good, too, though the One’s did not quite catch the very lowest level details or the sense of “air” surround the instruments as effectively as some higher-end headphones and earphones do, though the Klipsch ‘phones certainly held their ground relative to many like-priced competitors.