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gift guide 2009

Review: Sleek Audio SA6 headphones

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The Short Version: A pricey pair of headphones, but an excellent and unique one as well. These headphones offer more punch than the Klipsch X5s and very nearly the level of clarity. If you’re looking for a high-end pair of in-ears, you can’t do much better than this.

The Long Version: As a spoiled blogger and gadget reviewer, I get to test out a lot of headphones. Sometimes I struggle to find the salient differences between one pair and another, especially are both good, as in the case of Logitech’s G35 and the Razer Megalodon. In Sleek Audio’s case, I have no trouble separating them from the pack. The use of switchable components makes these units unique to my knowledge, and allow me to settle this right away: it’s not just a gimmick.

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Okay, it’s kind of a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick with a real effect. People switch devices frequently, and of course you listen to different music from day to day (to say nothing of year to year), so why shouldn’t you have a pair of headphones that’s as flexible as you are? Certainly you can get a good pair like the Klipsch S4s I recently reviewed, for $75 or less, which will serve you well in most circumstances (just use anything but iPod headphones, really). But if you use your headphones a lot, why shouldn’t you make an investment in them, the way you do with other devices you know you’re going to wear the hell out of? It’s my standard argument for bumping up your budget and it applies here as well as with the Klipsch X5s I loved so much.

Removable what now?

So it’s got removable bits. What does that mean exactly? Well, why tell you when I can show you? Check out the following short video to see the process of switching out the bass and treble components.

I should mention that in real life, it doesn’t take more than a minute for the whole process.

The pieces you get are -, =, and + pieces for bass and treble, indicating reduced, normal, or increased levels of that range. If it sounds like a bit of a coarse adjustment, it is — but that doesn’t make it useless or anything. I also received an “extended” treble tip which I don’t believe will be in the retail packages because Sleek felt many users would find it harsh.

So the effect of all this switching of tiny bits around is a tangible difference in sound. Maybe I’m just an adrenaline junkie, or maybe it’s the music that I listen to, but I worked my way up to the + bass and ++ treble within a couple days. That’s not for everybody, but I wanted to see how far these things would go, and I wasn’t disappointed.

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Sound quality

The sound of the SA Sixes is fantastic. They were good with the default pieces in place, but now that I’ve traded them out for the extreme pieces, they’re killing me. The strength of these is in the mid-highs and mid-lows, I feel, where they do something magical. I’m not sure what it is, but my reference songs sounded more powerful, more dynamic, with these SA6es, even before I put in the crazy tips. There’s a lot of punch in the lows, although I felt I was missing out on the low lows, such as the bass line to Deerhunter’s “Octet,” which should sound chunky and up front, but has trouble getting through on anything but large speakers. Similarly, the high highs are on missing what I feel is a tiny bit of definition, though I am really only able to say so because the X5s focus on high end clarity to a fault. Still, those caveats are minor compared with the power that I feel is added to the sound in the ranges that really matter for most music. I might not be able to make out that third clarinet in whatever big band song, but the whole affair sounds more lively.

Fit and build

The fit of the headphones is something that’s always hard to judge, since everyone’s ears are different. There are three sets of double-flanged silicone tips for the SA6es, and I found the default medium tips to be the best for me. I feel that the silicone is thicker and stiffer than any I’ve used before, however, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. I think it blocks sound out better, and indeed, when I’ve got them adjusted to that sweet spot, they isolate extremely well, but there’s a downside. The stiffness means they press more on the inside of your ear canal, which, depending on the fit, may irritate you. I felt they also transmitted sound along them somewhat, which made my ears itch.

I don’t know, maybe I’m just crazy. But I would recommend that Sleek include (since it’s so big on customization anyway) thin flanges as well as thick in their next retail offering.

Photo 4One other issue I had (and I understand I received a pre-production pair so this may not be an issue for you) was that the sheath for the jack kept coming off. Why it’s on there in the first place I don’t know, but it came off half the time when I disconnected the things. Otherwise the build quality is excellent. They’re nice-looking little things as well.

Update
: I’ve been told that the production audio jack is one solid piece, so no worries there.

Conclusion

$250 is a lot to ask for a pair of headphones, but if you truly want to enjoy your music, you shouldn’t short yourself in this department. I know it’s easy for me to recommend things that I’m getting to try without spending the money, but I was buying expensive headphones long before I started reviewing them. I’m a believer.

I don’t want to overstep my bounds, however, and I can only compare these to those which I’ve tried before, and the closest relatives are the Klipsch X6es. These SA6es outperform them in many areas, and the customization aspect makes them perhaps the better buy. At any rate, they’re excellent; buy or investigate further at Sleek Audio’s site.

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