By: Jeremy To
November 4, 2011
If you live in a city as "spontaneous" as Calgary, you would not be surprised by how fast summer quickly turns to winter. Just a few days ago (More specifically, Halloween), I crawled out of bed being greeted with a small patch of snow. We all know the feeling, waking up praying for it to be a beautiful day, only to find the opposite. For Calgary, however, you tend to prepare for the worst before you hope for the best. Much like summer and winter, the world of audio also has two very different ends of the spectrum. No, I am not talking about good audio equipment versus bad audio equipment ordeal, but more along the lines of how audio equipment is tested. On one end, we have objectivists who rely on technical and engineering information as well as experience to test audio devices. On the other end, we have subjectivists who rely on the careful process of individual listening and time to rate a device's worth. Which method is more correct? Well, neither. But since we here at APH Networks are Canadian, we tend to think both methods are right to a certain degree, but we do certainly lean more towards the subjectivist's way of doing things. Is it because we are not comprised of sound engineers? Possibly. But I believe the main reason is, just because you can spout out information regarding the performance of a pair of earphones using the laws of physics, doesn't necessarily mean the device sounds -- for lack of a better term -- good. Today, we just may or may not have this slippery slope upon our feet. Arctic Cooling's new Arctic Sound E461-BM may look quite impressive on paper, boasting amazing performance in the linearity of the earphones frequency response, but how do they sound? Itching to hear what I heard? Well, for that, you will need to purchase the earphones. But for now, I can scratch that itch for you if you read on.
Today's review unit came to our headquarters in a small cardboard box from the arctic shores of Arctic Cooling's office in the hot and humid city of Hong Kong -- not very 'arctic', if you ask me. As expected, Canada Post transferred the unit to our office in Calgary, Alberta, Canada in great condition. The box sat at my colleague Jonathan's house for a couple of weeks before it was decided I would review this product. After making the switch, I cracked open the box, and listened on with excitement.
The thematic approach of the retail packaging to most of Arctic Cooling's product follows a silver, grey, and white color scheme. Of course, these colors can easily create a very 'arctic' atmosphere that the company is looking to market. Although their Arctic Sound products do not feature any sort of 'cooling' seen on products in the rest of the Arctic Cooling brand, the retail box retains this style for great brand consistency. One thing to note is Arctic Cooling's branding is not present at all around the box; only the Arctic Sound logo is found. On the left side of the box is a stylish display window giving a full view of the earphones, while the rest of the box focuses on showing the features and specifications of the product. Let's briefly look at the technical data, as found around the box, and on the manufacturer's website:
Frequency Response (Hz-kHz): 17 Hz - 26 KHz
Dimensions (Packaging): 113 L x 53 W x 90 H mm
Sensitivity (dB/mW): 96
Impedance (ohm): 12
Plug: 3.5mm Jack
Cable (m): 1.3
Product Net Weight: 14 g
Limited Warranty: 2 years
item number: ERASO-ERM35-GBA01
Gross Weight: 0.2 kg
Like most conventional retail boxes, the Arctic Cooling Arctic Sound E461-BM opens at the top. Once opened, a plastic tray holding all of the components can then be slid out. All of the components are neatly packaged within the plastic tray. Out of the box, you will receive the E461-BM earphones itself accompanied by two types of silicone caps in three sizes (Totaling six pairs of silicone caps), cable clip, cable splitter, travel case, silicone cable winder, and lastly, a user's manual. Most of these components are to be expected, with the exception of the extra silicone caps -- which we will dive into later.
The Arctic Sound E461-BM is only available in one color combination, and that is black/silver. The backside of each earphone is an aluminum capsule that gives the silver finish to the unit. In terms of its design, the E461-BM is nothing out of the ordinary. This is not the first time I have seen a company go with black with silver accents on a pair of earphones, and it won't be the last. The aluminum capsule does give an added style that makes the unit look fairly classy. However, I cannot the same for the shape of the earphones. The earphones look extremely fat and disproportionate, due to its spherical shape. If I had to say, I personally think the Arctic Sound E461-BM is quite ugly because of this. However, I am quite aware aesthetic appeal differs from person to person, so if these earphones suit you, then to each their own.
In terms of the weight, the Arctic Cooling Arctic Sound E461-BM is fairly light. In this area, you will not find much of a difference between these and other earphones from other manufacturers at the same price range. Being in-ear monitors, they go straight into the user's ear, which is the most conventional configuration. I personally do not use this configuration, because it usually causes quite a lot of low frequency sounds from wire friction rubbing against your shirt. Also, since in-ear monitors tend to focus on absolute sound isolation, one will find themselves wearing only one earbud instead of two on several occasions, which forces more weight onto the single side you are wearing. To combat this problem, one may choose to wrap the earphones around the ear before placing them in, or to wrap the wire around the back of your neck -- which is the method I prefer (Although this generally requires a longer wire for the right monitor). For the Arctic Sound E461-BM, I chose the medium silicone sleeves, which fit me well. As for the overall fit, I believe the E461-BM can be improved. It seems the fat spherical profile of the unit gets in a way when they are secured, and therefore loses some sound isolation and comfort.
The connector found on the Arctic Sound E461-BM is a 90 degree 3.5mm connector. An angled connector is better in my personal opinion, since they tend to be easier to plug in and out of devices -- not to mention they generally feed the wire in the right direction better than 45 and 180 degree connectors. The overall cable length of the earphones is 1.3m, which is fairly generous. One should not have an issue using these earphones for a wide variety of devices. With an estimated MSRP of around $50 USD, the build quality of the entire unit is acceptable. The material found on the connector and Y-split junction found at the center have improved from the previously reviewed Arctic Sound E352 by my colleague Jonathan. However, the plastic feel is still underwhelming, and the logo stamping on both parts looks both plain and cheap. The earphones themselves definitely lack build quality, as the earphone heads simply look like they have been pieced together (Plastic and aluminum) and glued shut without a single thought for design, aesthetics, or feel. Of course, Arctic Cooling markets the earphones to have an amazing set of drivers. But lacking so much on the outer materials is a little worrying.
Since the E461-BM uses a standard cord, the microphonic properties are fairly normal, and do not differ much from other earphones around the same price. Other more expensive and more exclusive products like the V-MODA Vibe II uses a braided Kevlar cable will tend to create louder and harsher low frequency sounds (More friction between cloth materials). This is a characteristic that regular cables benefit from. Also, much like the Arctic Sound E352 earphones, the E461-BM feature a shirt clip that can be used for those who uses these while working out.
Included with the unit are two separate components that work for the user's convenience. The first of which is a silicone block that can be used to wind the cable around. This nifty cable management feature in my opinion is brilliant, and works like a charm. Also, one can use the winded unit and place it inside the second component, which is the zip up travel case. The travel case takes the form of a circular shape and a hard shell. In terms of depth, the dimensions are spot on; fitting the unit with the silicone cable winder without much of a problem. I was even able to place my 16GB iPod Nano inside the travel case with the E461-BMs inside. The diameter of the travel case, however, can be increased by a hair pin. The outer corners of the cable winder are touching the zipper, so closing the case requires some effort and tight fitting.
A quick comparison photo: V-MODA Vibe II (Left), Arctic Cooling Arctic Sound E461-BM (Center), and Arctic Cooling Arctic Sound E352 (Right).
At a closer look at Arctic Cooling's Arctic Sound E461-BM earbuds, you can really see the lack of quality and complexity of the chassis holding the drivers. They feature a contrast between the black plastic and silver aluminum finish, as stated before. Sure, the aluminum finish can be classy, but in my opinion, Arctic Cooling has pieced together these earphones without a second thought towards much of anything. The back aluminum shell may increase the performance and sound quality of the final output, but Arctic Cooling needs to think more outside the box other than just having the materials. Of course, I would say the E461-BMs are an improvement from the very glossy wood finish on the Arctic Sound E352 seen on the right. However, if one were to quickly compare the E461-BM to the V-MODA Vibe IIs seen on the left, it would be a no-brainer that the Vibe IIs excel in material, design, style, and sophistication. Of course, such a comparison is quite unfair, between two different earphones of different classes. However, the lack in material quality itself is enough to make a statement. Also, I found that Arctic Cooling need to pay more attention to labeling their earphones left and right. The labeling is there, but it took me a full week to actually find the 'L' and 'R' etched on the very bottom of the earphone where it meets the wire.
Like many modern in-ear monitors, the neodymium magnet drivers aim directly into the ear for an overall clearer sound reproduction. This design also makes cleaning a bit easier, since it does not have a tube in the middle. Once the earbuds are placed onto the earpiece, the earphone will go right into the ear in the attempt to fill in the space. The closed configuration is aimed at cancelling third party noise present in the outside environment.
As stated before in my introduction and on many past audio reviews, we here at APH tend to focus more on subjective tests in order to fully conclude a device's audio performance. This does not necessarily mean objective tests and/or double-blind tests are wrong, but they do not provide us with results as to how well the audio equipment sound. In order to comfort those that do not yet trust me or the APH standards of a subjective conclusion on audio equipment, I can tell you that several of us here at APH Networks have been musically trained, and I personally have had past experience in a professional recording studio. Nonetheless, the Arctic Cooling Arctic Sound E461-BM has been run through a series of subjective tests for the most objective rating possible. The tests were conducted primarily through the onboard Realtek ALC889 high definition audio codec on my Gigabyte GA-P67A-UD5-B3 motherboard. While it is no Auzentech X-Fi HomeTheater HD by a long shot, it still performs admirably well, as shown in the linked RMAA results. For mobile testing, I have used an Apple iPod Classic 160GB, iPod Nano 16GB, iPhone 3G 8GB, iPhone 4, and an ASUS Eee Pad Transformer TF101.
After approximately 150 hours of break-in time, I have started out testing with tracks that are uncompressed CDs, FLAC, or LAME encoded MP3s at 192Kbps or higher.
The following IEMs were used for reference benchmarking and not necessarily directly compared:
Since Arctic Cooling's Arctic Cooling Arctic Sound E352 have passed through APH Networks before, I must first admit that I did not have high expectations for these earphones. Arctic Cooling, however, states that the earphones should be regarded as their best earphone in their Arctic Sound line up. Seeing that Arctic Sound has put so much thought and design into these earphones, I excitedly gave these earphones a fresh chance at impressing me.
Reviewing audio is quite difficult. Something as subjective as sound differs from individual to individual, and creating a universal rubric is nearly impossible. What you, the reader needs to understand, is that perception is reality, and therefore I am by far no means the only sound reviewer out there you should listen to. What APH Network strives to do though, is to drive away from the average computer review site comprised of untrained editors that time and again give insufficient evaluations towards audio equipment. I loosely quote my fellow colleague Jonathan who states that, give an editor practically anything and you will end up reading, "good bass, nice midrange, awesome treble, really clear sound, 10/10". Of course, on the contrary, there are also many highly respected audio reviewers in the community. With this said and done, let's return to the E461-BMs.
At first listen, the Arctic Sound E461-BM has improved quite a lot from its predecessor, the E352. Is it up to the "audiophile" standards? Well... not really. But I can definitely say the E461-BM doesn't sound bad for something that costs $31.36 from the manufacturer at press time.
First off, in terms of clarity, the E461-BM performs admirably well. High pitches from percussion instruments like hi-hat taps or snare drums are heard clearly, while not being overly loud from other non-percussive instruments. Clarity in the midrange (Alto and tenor voices) is also pretty good, and does not seem to be out of balance from the rest of the soundscape. Bass, however, can be improved upon. Clarity of bass is there to a certain degree, but something is definitely lacking -- more on this later.
In terms of driver balance and frequency layering, I think Arctic Sound should be quite proud of themselves. Balance is generally overlooked when reviewing basic audio equipment, since it can be altered by the user. However, basic unaltered balance tells us many things about the earphones. This could include volume limitations of areas of the soundscape before the drivers start distorting, or even which portions of the drivers will deteriorate first over prolong usage. The E461-EMs are by no means close to perfect, but do a good job for its price range. The E461-BMs are fairly solid in this regard, easily holding a strong pyramid of sound (strong bass, medium tenor to alto, softer and calmer treble -- together creating a visual pyramid). The only small issue I found was the bass could have been balanced a bit louder. I found this to be a surprise, since it is usually the other way around. Since manufacturers strive for a strong supportive bass, they tend to overdo it, and end up creating a distorted heavy output. The E461-BMs lack bass in general. However, after careful evaluation, I believe this issue is more related towards the character of the bass, and not necessarily the volume of bass.
In terms of 'character' of the bass, I am not referring to its pitch characteristics, but rather its percussive characteristics. Everyone knows that all music, modern or ancient, will have bass. For these particular earphones, however, I found that it lacked vibration and character in this area. In music, we could refer to a bass note being played cut off, and that is exactly what the E461-BMs seem to do. The full length of most, if not all, bass percussive notes seem to be cut short or fade away too quickly. Arctic Sound states that the E461-BMs offer a "full-bodied bass". And that is exactly what the earphones do not do. In fact, such a description is perfect for explaining what I am trying to say. The bass lacks the full body that is usually overdone on most earphones. Unfortunately, because of this, another problem arises -- the atmosphere of music. Believe it or not, most music is not based off a melodic or harmonic line, but rather the bass line. At the same time, a drummer's beat is based off of his bass drum. Simply put, without bass, music would not only be horribly out of tune, but totally out of time and rhythm. So without a characteristic full length bass range, the E461-EM lacks a certain atmosphere when listening to music, no matter the genre.
Also a large issue, is that voices also tend to lose character. Extremely nasal voices becomes less nasal. Deep raspy voice are not as raspy. Brassy trumpets loses its brass character. When listening to several voices at once, the times at which I should easily be able to distinguish which voice belongs to whom, I found it strangely difficult. The end result is the voices tend to lose character and merge more into one uniform voice. Of course, raspy voices will still be raspy, but not as raspy as originally heard.
In terms of soundstaging, the earphones perform well. Of course, the earphones can be improved upon. When listening to classical music, it is quite easy to hear thick textured parts, and it requires little to no effort to compare large instrumental sections from small ones. Instruments and voices alike are fairly easy to pick out from one another. However, picking out one violin from a group of violins or one voice from an ensemble of voices is exponentially harder, because of the issue addressed one paragraph above. After you figure out which earphone is left and which one is right, hearing instrument location is quite easy though.
The closed isolation design along with multiple sized ear sleeves provided good environmental sound isolation. As stated before, the profile shape of the earphones themselves may limit the sound isolation by a small amount, since they tend to prevent the earbuds from going in far enough to create a full seal. Other than that, the Arctic Cooling E461-BM isolate sound fairly well -- no matter the location.
To start off the conclusion, I must first say that the Arctic Sound E461-BM definitely offer more than the previously reviewed Arctic Sound E352. The E461-BM earphones are by no means perfect. But as a pair of earphones made for your mobile phone and/or music player, with a price of $31.36 USD from the manufacturer at press time, the E461-BM do bring quite a bit to the table. What do I mean? Well, first off, these earphones provide a host of convenient accessories like six pairs of silicone sleeves, a cable management silicone block, and a stylish travel case. If you were to use these earphones while working out, then a shirt clip is also provided for extra convenience. The entire unit is considered lightweight, the wires are durable and easy to use especially during travel. If you are using them on your mobile device and want to utilize a microphone as well, then an extra cable splitter is provided for you with a 3.5mm audio and microphone plug in. In terms of sound performance, Arctic Sound has stepped up and designed a fairly well balanced pair of earphones that respond well on most frequencies, at least for the price. The neodymium magnet drivers offers overall good soundstaging when listening to music. A great sense of clarity is heard in the high and midrange portion. However, Arctic Sound still has work cut out for them. First of all, build quality of the entire unit is still lacking. The 90 degree 3.5mm plug and Y-split junction seems to be cheap addons. More importantly, the earphone head is lacking in quality. The aluminum and plastic contrast seems like a good attempt in design, but ultimately results in a cheap-looking earphone that lacks in build quality and aesthetic inspiration. Also, the fat profile shape of the earphones prevents a fully isolated and comfortable fit when in the ear. In terms of its audio performance, the E461-BM is still unable to fully create an engaging listening atmosphere. This is by far the largest problem with most earphones found in this price range. In the case of the Arctic Sound E461-BM, the lack of bass vibration, character, length, volume, and sometimes clarity is one of the first noticeable issues. Another large problem is that the high and midrange seems to lose voice characteristics. This issue also affects the overall soundstaging performance of the earphones to a certain degree as well. If Arctic Sound focuses more on these problems, then they may be able to drive away countless manufacturers that produce under-performing earphones in this price range. For now, however, Arctic Cooling's Arctic Sound E461-BM is not much more, or not much less than any other earphone in its class.
Arctic Cooling provided this product to APH Networks for the purpose of evaluation.
APH Review Focus Summary:
6/10 means A product with its advantages, but drawbacks should not be ignored before purchasing.
5/10 means An average product with no real advantages; drawbacks and advantages just seems to cancel each other out.
-- Final APH Numeric Rating is 5.8/10
Please note that the APH Numeric Rating system is based off our proprietary guidelines in the Review Focus, and should not be compared to other sites.
The Arctic Sound E461-BM is quite a step up from its predecessor for $31.36 at press time. However, its build quality and sound quality could use some work.
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