Spider Realvoice headphones are a pleasure to listen to
At a Glance
I always like to see audio products seemingly come out of nowhere to wow both headphone enthusiasts and reviewers. Such was the case with the $90 Realvoice headset, which was released to wide acclaim by Spider, a company formerly called Spider Cable and originally known for audio and video cables.
The Realvoice is a canalbud-style headset. Canalbuds generally split the difference, in both design and price, between traditional earbuds and true in-ear-canal (canalphone) models. Since they fit partially in the ear canal, canalbuds block some external noise, and they aim to form an acoustic seal that improves bass performance. However, they don’t block as much sound as true in-ear-canal models, and, as with those models, getting a proper fit can be tricky, the cord can produce unwanted microphonic noise in a listener’s ear, and using the headset function can be weird due to the occlusion effect of having your ears plugged while talking. (See our in-ear-canal headphone primer for more details.)
In the world of speakers, most designs are based on dynamic-driver technology, where a magnet, moving in response to an electrical signal, causes the vibration of a speaker cone. Models incorporating larger drivers generally allow for deeper (and higher-quality) bass response, as well as better sound reproduction at higher volumes—and, thus, better reproduction of large dynamic swings. Most canalbud models make use of miniaturized, but otherwise similar, dynamic or moving-coil drivers (as opposed to the balanced-armature drivers more frequently found in more expensive canalphone models).
If speakers can benefit from the use of larger drivers, then it stands to reason that headphones could also benefit—and that indeed turns out to be the case. However, the requirement that canalbuds be able to fit partially inside your ear canal places practical limits on the size of drivers, at least for traditional designs where the driver faces directly into the listener’s ear canal. In order to allow for the use of larger drivers, Spider rotates the Realvoice’s drivers 90 degrees, orienting them with the front of the driver facing toward the front of the listener’s head. Due to the physics of sound propagation, the driver doesn’t have to face directly into the listener’s ear, as long as the enclosure is designed to guide the sound into your ear canal.
Whereas in-ear headphones such as the Etymotic mc3 have 8mm drivers and the Future Sonics Atrio m5—known for its high quality dynamic driver—uses a relatively large 10mm driver, the Realvoice’s “sideways” orientation allows for the use of a comparably huge 12.5mm driver.
The result is an earpiece that may remind you of a very small hairdryer, or the letter P. A large, vertical stem routes the cable and provides strain relief, and the driver sits adjacent to it in a relatively thick, circular enclosure (the loop of the P). A short nozzle attached to the driver housing routes sound into the listener’s ears, and the black, silicone eartips that fit over this nozzle hold the earpiece in place and create an acoustic seal. The earpieces are chrome-colored plastic, with a white Spider logo on the front face of the driver housing.
The right side of the Realvoice’s split cable hosts a microphone and Apple-style, three-button (volume up, volume down, play/pause/send/end) remote/microphone module, also with a chrome finish. The remote has a raised hint that makes the center “play” button easy to distinguish, but the buttons don’t have a very decisive action, and something about the irregular rear surface of the remote module makes them seem unnecessarily hard to press. Spider designed the Realvoice for natural reproduction of human vocals, so it’s ironic that the Realvoice’s microphone doesn’t do a great job of capturing them. When using the microphone, voices are intelligible but a little quiet, have a tendency toward harsh sibilance, and lack the richness of the iPhone 4’s internal microphone. This slightly below-average performance is fine for taking phone calls, but it won’t provide the best experience for the person on the other end of the line or when using your iPhone to record audio.
The Realvoice comes with four paris of eartips (one pair of double-flange tips, and one pair each of single-flange tips in small, medium, and large—a medium/large size is available upon request). The Realvoice’s nozzle is relatively short, which means that the earpieces have a relatively shallow fit in your ear canal. I would have liked some slightly larger eartips, but I think most listeners will find that the earpieces are easy to insert and provide a good seal. I did find the earpieces a little uncomfortable after a while, due to the slight pull of the large driver housing on the tips, but, again, that could just be me—ear shapes vary widely enough that just about any pair of canalbuds or canalphones could be comfortable for one person and uncomfortable for another. (This is great argument for buying from a reputable retailer with a good return policy).
A metal cable slider allows for cinching the split portion of the cable, and metal covers the cable joint and the straight, 3.5mm headphone plug. Spider also includes a semi-rigid, zippered, circular carrying case with mesh pockets inside and a sampler CD from duo Nik and Sam, who endorse the headphones. (I’d not heard of Nik and Sam, but I’m not in the Radio Disney demographic.)
Does size matter?
I won’t bury the lede: The Realvoice sounds lovely, and I found it a pleasure to listen to. Spider certainly did something right here, although it’s difficult to know for sure how much of the Realvoice’s sound is attributable to the large, 12.5-mm driver. The company claims that the Realvoice is, as suggested by its name, tuned for natural reproduction of human vocals specifically and mid-range frequencies in general. Although in principle I think audio equipment should be tuned for overall accuracy, in practice, headphones in this price range will have strengths and weaknesses, and it’s reasonable for designers to prioritize certain areas of performance and attempt to make the strengths and weaknesses complementary.
In this case, the Realvoice’s midrange is clearly the star of the show, with bass and treble frequencies complementary. Vocals and midrange instruments sound natural, with good detail. Bass is strong and deep but a little loose; however, it fills out the sound of the headphones (and probably contributes to the rich sound of the midrange), and it generally behaves well enough to not get in the way of other parts of the audio spectrum. High frequencies are relaxed—some listeners will probably want more “sparkle”, but I found the treble to still be clearly audible, natural, and never harsh. These three characteristics work well together, giving a sound that sacrifices some clarity for a relaxed, rich, musical presentation that fits a variety of styles and listener preferences.
Overall, the Realvoice’s full sound comes at the cost of neutral frequency response and the sense of silence and space between notes that better headphones offer, but the Realvoice does sound “fast”, with music projecting a sense of momentum that suggests good transient response. It also does a good job of conveying dynamic contrast, enhancing the sense of drama in music (at least, music whose dynamic range hasn’t been obliterated in the mastering process).
Etymotic’s aforementioned $99 mc3 ([[4.5 mice]]) headset is comparable to the Realvoice in price and overall quality, but the sound of the two models is very different. Where the Realvoice is smooth and easy with exaggerated low frequencies and subdued high frequencies, the mc3 has tight but very restrained bass response, prominent highs that are clear but can sound harsh and a little thin with some recordings, and very clear, detailed mids. While I believe both models offer impressive performance for around $100, the mc3’s emphasis is on clarity and detail, letting you hear everything in a recording, whereas the Realvoice emphasizes a smooth, easy sound that manages to do a great job of conveying music, even if some sonic detail and texture is lost. My preference between the two easily changes depending on my current music and mood, but I think the Realvoice holds broader appeal.
The $200 Future Sonics Atrio (), on the other hand, has much more in common with the Realvoice. Both have similar presentation across the frequency spectrum. However, compared side-by-side, there were still major differences between the two models. The Atrio’s bass is tighter and more accurate than that of the Realvoice, but the Realvoice sounds richer. The Atrio offers more midrange detail, as well, but again, the Realvoice’s presentation sounds richer. And while the Atrio’s high frequencies are more pronounced than the Realvoice’s, they lack body, while the Realvoice’s high frequencies sound more natural. While I think the Atrio offers technically better performance, particularly in the bass and midrange, I can again see many listeners preferring the Realvoice—and that’s not even considering the $110 price difference.
Macworld’s buying advice
Although I have some bones to pick with particular aspects of the Spider Realvoice’s performance, the overall effect makes me resort to cliché: The Realvoice’s whole is more than the sum of its parts. It’s not the clearest and most detailed set of headphones available, even at this price, but it does a great job of conveying music and making it a pleasure to listen to. The Realvoice’s sound isn’t perfect for everyone, but I think just about anyone would enjoy it.
R. Matthew Ward lives in St. Louis and regrets the lack of puns in this review regarding Spider, its cables, and its website, but trusts readers to fill in the blanks themselves. He writes about audio, Apple, and other cool stuff on his personal blog.