The Indianapolis, IN-based firm Klipsch first entered the headphone market in 2007, focusing primarily on higher-end models such as Custom 3 ($299, no longer in production) and the Image ($349, and now called the Image X10). Over time, however, Klipsch expanded its product line to create in-ear headphones that embrace much lower price points and that incorporate remote control/microphone functions geared to address the needs of iPod and iPhone owners. A classic case in point would be the Image S4i ($99.95), which Klipsch describes as “an in-ear headset that combines the company’s acclaimed sound and unbeatable comfort with an advanced in-line microphone and remote (control) system.” These are brave words, to be sure, but as you’ll see in a moment they’re not just hollow marketing hype; the S4i has the sonic goods to back up its own ad copy.
Unlike Klipsch’s more costly Image X5 and Image X10 models, which use what Klipsch calls “balanced micro drivers” (i.e., balanced armature-type drivers), the S4i uses an 8.5mm “moving coil micro speaker design with controlled damping.” Most manufacturers who build in-ear headphones using both balanced armature and moving coil drivers will, when speaking off the record, concede that balanced armature offer greater performance potential overall. Interestingly, though, Klipsch claims that the S4i’s moving coil driver (which features a dual magnet motor design) delivers, “smooth, full bodied sound similar to a balanced armature.” Part of the reason I wanted to review the S4i was to learn how it would compare to its more costly Klipsch brethren, which are among the in-ear models Playback uses as reference. But speaking as dedicated iPhone user, I also wanted to check out the S4i’s 3-button remote control/mic system, which is based on an Apple chip and promises a wide array of functions—especially when used with the iPhone 3GS or the latest generation iPod nano, classic or iPod touch.
Consider this combination headset/earphone if: you want a headset that sounds unusually clear and nuanced over most of the audio range (from the upper-bass region on up). Bass is taut and well controller, but not as powerful or deeply extended as in some competing models (e.g., the NuForce NE-7M). The tonal balance of the S4i is generally neutral, though it exhibits just a touch of midrange forwardness that, I suspect, many listeners will find enchanting. Relative to other in-ear headphones near its price (e.g., the $80 Apple In-Ear Headphone), the S4i delivers a noticeably more articulate and revealing sound that is particularly engaging on delicate instruments or vocals. Klipsch’s patent-pending oval eartips remain the most comfortable that Playback has ever tried. As advertised, the S4i’s 3-button remote/microphone module works exactly as advertised, making this a good choice for iPhone/iPod owners.
Look further if: you seek mid- and low bass that is not only well-defined and well-controlled (qualities the S4i offers in spades), but also blessed with power, weight, and depth (areas where the S4i comes up a little bit short). Also look further if you seek optimal tonal neutrality, as the S4i’s traces of midrange forwardness can potentially be off-putting for some listeners.
Ratings (compared to similarly-priced in-ear headphones)