When I was a lad Swedish design was all the rage. Design Research, who specialized in Scandinavian modernism, had a large four-story Cambridge showroom that rivaled the Harvard Coop as the largest retail establishment in Harvard Square. At the time Swedish design epitomized the ne plus ultra of form-follows-function ergonomic elegance. Then along came Apple and suddenly Swedish design didn’t look all that special anymore. But all those Swedish designers didn’t skulk off to Uzbekistan; no, they kept at it. Urbanears demonstrates that modernist Swedish design is very much alive and well.
Unlike most of the manufacturers whose products appear in Playback, Urbanears isn’t a traditional audio products company. Instead, Urbanears is a design collective. And unlike most hi-fi firms with their multiple skews of similarly styled earphones at different price points, Urbanears only a handful of models, each addressing a specific need or filling a particular niche. Each one has a unique design created for a particular purpose. The Bagis is Urbanears only earphone (as in, in-ear headphone). The Medis, which is Urbanears’ other semi-in-ear earphone, has a completely different physical design and optimal usage environment (the Medis is more of an earbud than a true earphone, meaning it rests in your outer ears--not in your ear canals). Conceivably, you could own every model in the Urbanears lineup and have almost no usage overlap. According to Urbanears, “An Urbanears product is typically conceived through a vision of how a headphone is used and why.” Different listening environments require different physical designs.
Urbanears Bagis ‘phones are available in fourteen different colors, but depending on the season your retailer may only have ten, since for each season Urbanears changes which colors are available based upon a summer/spring/fall/winter set of Pantone-matched colors. My review samples were white, a color that is available year-round. Whichever color you choose, your Bagis ‘phones will come with a set of small, medium, and large eartips in that same color. Some colors are subtle, such as Mocha, while others like Mustard and Grape are Day-Glo bold. Urbanears let’s you decide how much you want your earphones to be noticed.
Sonically, the Bagis could be best described as a music-lover’s design—they aren’t bass blasting hip-hopping bad boys or super-high resolution audiophile monitors. Instead the Bagis are medium resolution earphones that get the midrange largely right, have enough bass energy for most listeners, and avoid upper frequency issues due to a gently downward sloping response above 2 kHz.
With a list price of $35 and a street price around $30, the Bagis earphones deliver surprising sound quality, an elegant physical design, and rugged overall construction. For an urban traveler, fitness fan, or anyone who wants a musically satisfying earphone, the Bagis are an exceedingly cost-effective choice.
Ergonomic Highlights and Lowlights
Although the Bagis lack a travel case, they can be carried in a unique way when not inserted in your ears—by design the left and right earpiece housings snap together so the Bagis can be turned into a necklace of sorts. The snap system also serves a second, and in my eyes, even more useful function: you can easily identify the left from the right bud since the right is the “male” side while the left is the “female’ one. Even in a locked coal cellar at midnight you can tell which earpiece is right and which earpiece is left by feel alone. I like that.
With only three differently sized tips, all of similar design, the Bagis doesn’t offer the range of fit options you’ll find from Shure or Etymotic, but I found the largest tips did a good job of sealing my outer ear canal and providing decent isolation. The isolating qualities of the Urbanears are not quite as effective as the Sure SE215 or Etymotic ER4P, and while Urbanears supplies no isolation specifications, my ballpark guess on their isolation is around 20 db. Near the end of the review period I looked through my extensive tip stash and found a pair of soft eartips that were slightly larger than the largest ones supplied by Urbanears, which gave me a slightly more secure fit. With these tips it took a quite a bit of downward force to unseat them. There was a sonic tradeoff, however; the third-party ear-tips boosted the mid-bass by several decibels.