Custom earphones are expensive, so the i-Mego Ztone (pronounced “stone”) attempts to level the playing field by bringing you the experience of onstage, custom-molded earphones for a mere $99.99 (direct). It sounds too good to be true, and it is. The fitted earpiece covers look similar to custom-molded earphones, but fit and behave nothing like them. From an audio performance standpoint, there’s nothing blatantly offensive about the Ztone, but its sound signature leans too heavily toward the lows and low-mids. The Ztone feels overpriced, its cost based on the principle that these earphones offer a glimpse of what custom-molded stage monitors sound like. They may be well constructed and capable of big bass. But in short: They don’t remotely resemble custom-molded earphones in performance, and don’t really hit the performance you’d expect from $100 earphones, either.
Few $100 earphone pairs look like the Ztone, or come with as many accessories. Offered in three alluring finishes (gunmetal, rose gold, or chrome), the unique earpieces of the Ztone are fitted with black silicone covers that fill up the ear, not unlike a custom-molded pair would. In fact, the design is intended to look very similar to a custom-molded pair—the cheapest of which start at around $400 or so. This silicone cover terminates at the ear canal in the familiar, typical silicone ear tip shape. There are regular ear tips included, as well. In all, four pairs of ear tips and three pairs of the larger silicone fittings are included with the Ztone.
With so many fit options, it’s easy enough to find the pair for your ears that will be most secure. Unfortunately, the cool, custom-looking ear fittings deliver a poor audio experience (but more on that in a bit). Luckily, you can just attach regular ear tips and forego the whole pseudo-custom fitting altogether. Regardless of which tip you use, the fit is fairly secure, and is aided by another staple of custom earphones: The rigid casing over the first few inches of the cable that makes it possible for it to be looped over and behind the ear.
The cable is also much fancier than you typically find in this price range—braided in a thick chain similar to the cables you’d find on $1,000 custom models. But the similarities seem to end there; most custom pairs feature removable cables, and the Ztone’s cables cannot be removed, which means if something goes wrong at the connection point to the earpiece, you’ll need to send the whole pair in for repair or replacement. Not that it’s typical for a $100 pair of earphones to have a replaceable cable—we’re just pointing out the differences between a typical custom pair and the Ztone.
Not unlike most custom pairs, there’s no inline remote control or microphone, so if you were expecting to be able to answer calls or control your phone with a couple buttons on the cable, that’s not an option here. The Ztone also ships with an airline jack adapter, a ¼-inch headphone jack adapter, and a compact snap-shut hard case.
If the ear fitting pieces seem gimmicky, it’s because they are. I see two major problems with them: First, they are not actually custom-molded (requiring an impression of your ears made by an audiologist), so they don’t actually help secure the in-ear fit they way you think they might. And more importantly, they make the audio performance dreadful.
How? The sound has to travel down a long tunnel before it reaches the ear tip portion that fits in your canal. On a custom pair, the sound travels through a tunnel of similar length, but the tunnel is actually in your ear canal. Putting an ear tip on the end of it ensures that the tunnel is not in your ear canal, which, since these are not custom-molded, is probably for the best. The end result, however, is that you basically lose all bass response (yes, proximity to the ear drum makes a huge difference with earphones, as this pair so clearly demonstrates). The audio sounds like it’s coming from a speaker near your ear, not an earphone in your ear. It’s the exact opposite effect a pair of custom-molded earphones are expected to have.
The good news? You can snap these fittings off and simply use one of the four provided silicone ear tips, and then you have yourself a very normal pair of earphones. Thus, the results discussed below are with regular ear tips on.
On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like the Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the Ztone delivers laudable, deep bass response at moderate volumes. At top volumes, distortion starts to creep into the picture, but only at unreasonably loud listening levels. It’s not great that distortion begins to occur, but it is very minor, and at regular listening levels it’s not an issue.
On Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” the drums receive a decent extra helping of rich low end response, as do his baritone vocals. Nothing here sounds over-the-top in terms of bass boosting, but the low-mids seem to get a bit too much of the spotlight, with the bass line and drums occupying the same space as his vocals at times. The guitar strumming gets a bit of high-mid edge, as do his vocals, which keeps things from entering muddy territory, but the Ztone definitely leans towards the low-mids on this mix.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” this focus on the lows is more obvious. The kick drum loop that ideally has a nice high-mid chop to its attack has little high-mid presence here—instead, it’s delivered with a dull, low-end thump. Sub-bass synth parts that punctuate the beat are delivered with intensity, making the mix once again lean heavily toward the lows. Vocals manage to carve out a clear space over the busy mix, and things don’t sound muddy, but the mix could be a lot crisper and brighter.
Classical and orchestral music sounds more rewarding than most other genres through the Ztone. On tracks like John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” it adds some nice low-end richness to the mix, while the higher register strings and percussion already pack enough crisp, bright presence to ensure things sound more balanced here. The low-mids still win out, in terms of overall balance, but the sound signature is less obviously weighted to the low-end of the frequency range.
If the Ztone were priced about $25 less and didn’t include the gimmicky ear fittings that basically do nothing for the listener, then we’d be talking about a reasonably-priced earphone pair with decent audio quality. But at $100, delivering a sound signature with too much emphasis on low-mids, and without an inline remote or microphone, these earphones seem out of place with similarly-priced competition.
If you’re looking for a big bass sound in this price range, the Sennheiser MM 70s delivers serious low-end, but balances it out with a bit more crisp high-mids and highs so the mix retains some contour. For a little bit more money, the Shure SE215 delivers a balanced sound and features something the Ztone could have tried but didn’t—a detachable cable—and the TDK EB950 offers some of the best, most balanced audio performance near this price range. If you are truly interested in a custom-fitted pair, the least expensive pairs we’ve tested, like the Ultimate Ears UE 4 Pro, will run you significantly more than $100, and the typical pairs exist in the $1000-and-up price range.
The i-Mego Ztone is not a horrible earphone pair, but it’s sold on the premise that, as the i-Mego’s website claims, it “brings on-stage custom earphone quality to your everyday life.” Nothing here, from the ear fittings that negate the in-ear audio experience, to the actual quality of the audio performance itself, is on par with any custom earphone we have tested. Plenty of non-custom sub-$100 earphones are similar in quality to the i-Mego Ztone, and that’s how they should be marketed, not as on-stage custom earphones or anything vaguely approximating them.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc