We test a lot of headphones here at CNET, and the good ones tend to set you back more than $100. But a new headphone company, Sol Republic, is hoping to change that with a line of headphones that deliver very good sound and durability for a more affordable price.
In case you’re wondering what “Sol” stands for, it has nothing to do with the sun but is an acronym for “soundtrack of life.” The company’s founders have a good pedigree in the headphone business, and co-founder and CEO Kevin Lee is the son of Monster Cable founder Noel Lee, widely credited for driving the popular Beats by Dr. Dre line of headphones at Monster.
The new line consists of two flavors of Amps in-ear headphones and two flavors of Tracks on-ear headphones that feature “swappable headbands, speakers, and cables in various colors and designs.” The Tracks’ headband also boasts a proprietary new polymer called FlexTech, which the company says makes the headphones virtually indestructible.
Both the Amps and the Tracks have a built-in microphone for cell phone calls. The Tracks model reviewed here costs $99.99, while the higher-end $129.99 Tracks HD model will debut in late 2011.
With their deep bass and aggressive sound, these headphones aren’t for everyone (read: if you like well-balanced “natural” sounding headphones, these aren’t a good fit), but if you’re someone who likes a Beats-like sound, the Tracks certainly fit the bill-and cost less.
Design While the Tracks don’t look anything like the $179 Beats Solo headphones by Dr. Dre from Monster, they’re arguably spiritual cousins. They have the same on-ear design, which means these guys sit on top of your ears rather than completely enveloping them like the Monster Beats by Dr. Dreover-the-ear headphones.
I found these headphones pretty comfortable, but they’re not in the same league as Bose’s OE2 on-ear headphones, which cost $179.99 with an integrated microphone and inline remote, and $149.99 without.
I jury tested these with a few editors and one said the headphones just didn’t sit quite right on his ears due to the angle of the headband, and the other said the fit was secure. Based on those anecdotal judgments, I’d say users will have mixed results on the level of comfort.
As I said earlier, one of the Tracks’ claims is that you can basically disassemble the headphones and swap in a new headband. The earphones also have detachable cords and pads, so there’s a lot of flexibility in terms of accessorizing the earphones (Sol Republic calls them “sound engines”).
Company reps made a point of showing us how that headband was bendable yet very strong and it looks like you won’t have a problem with it ever breaking. We compared these with the more expensive Editors’ Choice AiAiAi TMA1 that have some similarly rugged characteristics, and while I found that model more comfortable to wear over the long term, it’s bulkier and designed with DJs in mind.
The Tracks review sample I tested had a glossy black finish on the outer part of the earphone, as well as on the integrated remote (you can skip tracks forward and back and adjust the volume up and down on Android and iOS smartphones), which makes them look flashy, but there’s a downside: the finish attracts fingerprints and makes the headphones appear grubbier after extended use. That shortcoming aside, the Tracks have a distinct look and I generally liked their design.
Performance The Tracks definitely have some kick to them, and as I said earlier, their sound leans toward the aggressive end of the spectrum, accentuating the bass and treble, stopping just short of being overbearing. They’re going to sound their best with songs that have big, thumping bass, in genres like hip-hop, rap, and techno.
The start of Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” has a thudding bass line-if you’ve heard the song, you know the one I mean. Well, with the Tracks, I had to turn down the volume because the earphones were literally vibrating on my head.
I also had to ratchet back Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything,” which had lots of punch, just not the most terribly refined punch. Switching to bands like The National, Kings of Leon, and Wilco, that lack of refinement becomes more apparent: you’re just not going to get the detail, warmth, and presence that you get from higher-end headphones. But those headphones generally cost closer to $200, and like I said, the Tracks sound is tonally similar to the aforementioned AiAiAi TMA1, though the AiAiAi headphones are slightly more neutral.
Conclusion For $99, you can’t expect the world, and the Tracks don’t deliver the world, but they certainly are quite decent headphones for the money. Alas, we didn’t have the upcoming Tracks HD to compare them to, but that model is supposed to offer more detail and clarity with similar big bass.
These headphones are targeted at a certain type of listener, someone who’s considering a model like the Beats Solo (or any Beats headphones) and doesn’t want to pay the Beats premium. If that’s the type of person you are, the Sol Republic Tracks are certainly worth a long listen. They largely deliver on their promise of offering good sound and durability for an affordable price.