The iPod is almost ubiquitous when it comes to MP3 players, the way Band-Aid is to bandages and Xerox is to photocopying. As the popularity of this bit of personal tech has continued exploding year after year, the search for the best way to enjoy the fruits of your auditory gizmo grows ever more difficult. Everyone wants a piece of the pie, some worthwhile and some not, and Japanese earphone maker Radius has made the leap to North America to throw their offerings into the fray. Do they measure up? First let's look at what the three models – Atomic Bass, TruTune, and Atomic Straps – have in common.
They each come with three sizes of silicone covers for the speakers that serve to affix the buds to your ear canals (rather than hanging by the cartilage below). The advantages are that they usually stay in place and block out exterior noise effectively. The downside to that, of course, is that you really can't hear what's going on around you, making them potentially risky for use in busy areas, or if you go jogging off the beaten path.
The silicone covers are replaceable, so despite the fact that in-ear phones run the risk of picking up some earwax and dust, you can always pitch them and get new. However, after a short time of use, if you aren't careful, the speaker housing where the silicone attaches may scrape your ear when inserting or positioning them.
As mentioned, they usually stay in; however, during a test at the gym, when lying back on a bench for weights or sit-ups, they started to slip out a bit. The plastic coating on the wire also had a tendency to stick to a sweaty body, and may also tug now and then as you move. This is in contrast to the Sony MDR-Q33 headphones I've been using for a few years now, which have a wire insulated in a non-stick woven material. Of course, the clip-on MDR-Q33s don't isolate sound nearly as well, for better or worse.
Another point of contention is how Radius' press materials go on about them being "a fraction the cost of comparable models," but didn't specify which models they were referring to. The three models available are between $35 and $40, and a quick search on Amazon.com reveals similar products from makers like Apple, Sony, and Philips for half that price, if not less.
However, the difference may be made up in energy consumption and design. I'm not sure if I just have weird ears or what, but typical ear bud designs just won't stay in if I so much as move. The Radius models stayed put most of the time. They sport 32-Ohm impedance, or twice that of standard earphones. This leads to longer battery life, but is it worth twice the price? The style may be the deciding factor here, as they are pretty sharp looking.
Let's look at what really matters: the sound quality. This and the connectivity options are where the different models really start to diverge.
First up is the Atomic Bass model, with a MSRP of $39.95. These were by far the best all-around performers, with full bass and a solid balance from low to high and everywhere in between. The bass very rarely bottomed out or showed any distortion except at ridiculous volumes, but if you're doing that, you deserve it. They may actually be too clear, as they picked up a hiss in the background as soon as I connected them that none of my other headphones have detected. The cable is about three feet long from the jack to the earpiece split, so it's not ideal for a home stereo or setting your MP3 player down on the table much more than an arm's length away. However, it's also not so long that it'll get tangled around your knees while running. It has a standard headphone jack and will fit pretty much any normal audio device, unlike the Atomic Straps that we'll cover later. The U shape to the split in the cable skews weight slightly to one side, and may tug more on the left bud than the right during use. All in all, this was the strongest of the three where sound quality is concerned, and has the benefit of apparently being the only Radius model available on Amazon as of this writing.
Next up is the TruTune design, priced at $34.95. They're billed as the affordable alternative to the Atomic Bass, though $5 isn't really that much, and the difference in sound quality is significant. It's like the Atomic Bass model stole all the thunder of the TruTune, literally. The bass performance is nonexistent by comparison. I put these in first of the three and thought they weren't too bad, but putting on any other headphones made the difference very apparent. They look nice and come with an extender cable so you can put your audio player further away, but between this and the Atomic Bass, definitely go for the latter. Being that they're really not that much cheaper, it can't even be said that "you get what you pay for."
Bringing up the rear is the niche-iest of the bunch, the Atomic Straps, running a familiar $39.95. It's a candidate for a naming fail, as there is only one neckstrap, and it has nothing to do with the "Atomic"-ness of the sound. Quibbles aside, the draw of this model is that it acts as a lanyard for the third generation iPod Nano, and nothing else. Literally, it won't connect properly to any other device, given the design of it. It won't even fit other models of iPods. I tried using the extender cable from the TruTune to connect it to my Sansa MP3 player, and it sort of worked, but the connection point was so loose that if you move it at all, it comes unhooked. The pin doesn't securely fit the hole. On top of that, in what I was able to hear from them, the sound quality skews too much toward bass to an overpowering degree, ending up sounding muddy. There's a bit of high-range, but mid-range gets lost. I think the bass ate it. And again, they're designed deliberately to only work with that specific iteration of the Nano.
In the end, the clear winner is the Atomic Bass. The TruTone lacks low-range punch of any sort, and the limitations of the Atomic Straps are even greater, though it will probably work okay for the specific set who can make use of it. The Atomic Bass held its own against the similar Sony MDR-E10LP, which start at $15 and drop from there.
With that in mind, it comes down to user preference. Do ear buds not stay in your ears very well? Do you want to block out all the noise around you? Do you want to pay twice as much (or more) and save a bit of battery life? If you said "yes" to any of those, Radius' first foray into the North American market may be for you. Me? I'll keep the Atomic Bass buds handy, but I expect to still use my old Sonys most of the time.