Review: Velodyne vPulse headphones offer big bass without offending
At a Glance
Audio manufacturer Velodyne has traditionally been known for its high-end subwoofers. Indeed, a visit to the company’s home page reveals photos of speakers designed to provide the lowest of the low frequencies in a home-audio system, ensuring that bass sounds are clearly heard (and felt). These high-quality subs include fancy features such as 18-inch drivers, servo-based woofer control, and digital equalization for room correction.
But alongside this series of nondescript black cubes, the Velodyne home page shows something very different these days: headphones. More specifically, the company’s $99 vPulse In-Ear Headphones.
Velodyne isn’t the first speaker company to turn to headphones. Klipsch, Bowers and Wilkins, PSB, Harman-Kardon, Paradigm, and Polk—not to mention Bose—have found inspiration (or perhaps have seen dollar signs) in the booming market for headphones created by the iPod, iPhone, and other portable media players that have become pervasive over the last decade.
But unlike these other companies, Velodyne doesn’t make full-range speakers—just subwoofers. So when Macworld received a sample of the vPulse for review, I was curious: What happens when a subwoofer company makes a full-range headphone?
Before getting to the interesting answer to that question, a little backstory: The vPulse was born not just out of a desire to diversify the company’s business, but also from founder David Hall’s personal experience with in-ear headphones. A company representative told me that Mr. Hall had purchased a premium-priced, bass-heavy model as a gift for his teenage son, but upon hearing them, Mr. Hall was disappointed in their sound quality. He thought that he could do better, and the vPulse is the result of that inspiration.
Back to the headphones: The vPulse is a canalbud-style headset, and as such, splits 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 are designed to form an acoustic seal that improves bass performance. However, they don’t block as much sound as true canalphone models, and, as with those headphones, 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.)
The vPulse’s earpieces are composed of a cylindrical aluminum housing with an angled stem for the black ear tips (which are included in extra-small, small, medium, and large sizes); the earpieces are capped off by a stylized “V” logo. A flat, fettucini-like black cable—the shape helps prevent knotting—exits the earpieces, with the left cable hosting an inline remote and microphone module. The remote is an Apple-style, three-button version, with a prominent center button for play/pause/call/end and two flanking, flat buttons for volume control. The center button is mercifully easy to identify and press, and while the volume buttons’ action is not as decisive as I would like, this is one of the better inline-remote designs I’ve used.
That appraisal includes the module’s microphone, which offers performance that approaches the iPhone 4’s internal microphone, something few other models manage. There’s also a cable slider, a hard-plastic housing to support the Y joint of the split cable, and a 90-degree 3.5mm stereo miniplug.
My review sample was black and silver, and although I don’t have a strong opinion about the design’s aesthetics, the bright-blue version (and an available-soon bright-pink version) may be more polarizing. Aesthetics aside, the vPulse’s design is functional, and the headphones have a shallow, easy fit—although if you carry your iPhone or iPod in your pants pocket, you may find yourself wishing for a few extra inches of cable length. Velodyne also includes a shirt clip and a semi-rigid, zippered carrying case.
You would expect headphones from a subwoofer company to have big bass, and that’s certainly the case with the vPulse: It was the first thing I noticed when I started testing the headphones. But while the low frequencies are prominent, they’re also of high quality, and this tight sound helps keep the bass from being obnoxious. Although all portions of the bass range are well-represented, it’s low bass that’s the most exaggerated, which gives bass drums and electronic beats a powerful feel, and gives the overall sound a subwoofer-like punch. Mid-bass and upper bass are comparatively restrained, which helps prevent the low frequencies from overwhelming the midrange (at least in most recordings—there were a few tracks I encountered for which the vPulse’s bass crossed the line of good taste).
It’s a good thing the bass tends not to get in the way, because the vPulse’s midrange is lovely. In fact, the midrange was the feature that kept me coming back to the headphones. Vocals and midrange instruments are nicely detailed, with an endearingly natural quality. Reproduction of percussion is particularly good, with detail that gives music a great sense of momentum and consistently drew me in. High frequencies draw the least attention to themselves, but are clear and crisp, if more restrained than with some of the best headphones I’ve heard.
Despite the prominent low end, the vPulse’s sound is relatively spacious, rather than displaying the crowded quality common to bass-heavy models. I’m certainly not afraid to call out obnoxious, overblown bass, but the vPulse manages to gracefully pull off its sound. I’d love to see an “audiophile” version of the headphones that dials back the lows and lets the highs shine a little more, but as it is, the vPulse did a fantastic job of drawing me into the music, and the sound was consistently enjoyable.
With its restrained highs, natural mids, and prominent bass, the vPulse reminded me immediately of the $90 Spider Realvoice ( ), but in direct comparison, the vPulse offers a more-satisfying take on that sound signature. Versus the vPulse, the Realvoice’s high frequencies are more veiled (though they have more body), its mid-bass overly ripe, and its low bass lacking in impact. Its midrange also lacks detail compared to the vPulse, although this is again offset with more body, which adds to the Realvoice’s natural sound. I still like the Realvoice, but I like the vPulse more.
The $200 Future Sonics Atrio m5 ( ) is legendary for its low-frequency performance, and, as good as the vPulse’s lows are, the Atrio offers superior detail in that range. However, the vPulse excels in giving the impression of powerful, subwoofer-like bass: The Atrio has more finesse, while the vPulse has more power. The Atrio’s high frequencies sound thinner than the vPulse’s, too, and I also prefer the vPulse’s midrange, although the Atrio is more spacious. The $250 Scosche IEM856md ( ), with its dual-driver design, manages better high frequencies, tighter bass, and a more-spacious sound than the vPulse, but the vPulse has the more-natural midrange and more impressive lows. Considering that the vPulse is half the price of the less expensive of these two models, it acquits itself very well.
Macworld’s buying advice
Although I tend to approach bass-heavy headphones withs some skepticism, the Velodyne vPulse won me over quickly. It offers big bass that doesn’t get in the way of the rest of the music, surprises with a lovely midrange, and offers a functional design. I’d prefer for the lows to be scaled back a bit (and, while I’m wishing, I’ll take a little bit more of the high frequencies), but the vPulse mostly makes its balance an asset, and otherwise does so much so well that I can look past (and even mostly enjoy) its bass-heavy balance. The vPulse is impressive enough that I recommend it to anyone shopping in the $100 price range, unless you’re certain that you want more-neutral performance.