Review: Klipsch Image X5 in-ear headphones

Klipsch has been a big name in the speaker game for years, and I remember the old school ProMedias as being the definitive article when it came to 2.1, and later 5.1, desktop sound. When I first reported the X5s I wasn’t sure they could possibly be much better than the other in-ears I’ve owned and loved. Boy, was I wrong. Simply put, these are easily the best in-ear headphones I’ve ever used.

For reference, I generally listen to music with in-ear, outside-sound-blocking headphones, my last pair being a pair of Shure e2c in-ears, which replaced a pair of perfectly decent Sonys before them. Now that I have a little perspective on things, I can see where each went wrong: the Sonys were indistinct and muddled the mid-high end. The Shures were clear as day but seriously lacked a low end. The X5s have no such problems.

I’ve had them for quite a while now (Sorry, Klipsch) and I’ve really put them through their paces. They’ve been tried on Zunes, iPods, phones, PCs, and Apples, and I’ve listened to all manner of music. The X5s have excelled on every platform, and exposed flaws in the music and sound systems I would never have caught with lesser headphones.

With my Shures, I tended to avoid music that relied on bass ā€” not just hip hop and stuff like that, but any music with a lot of information at the the low end. Good bass playing, working the left side of the keyboard, that kind of thing. Now I’m positively seeking out songs with presence in every part of the register because I feel that I’m really hearing some of them for the first time. Grails’ Burning Off Impurities was a revelation, and Growing’s low end separated into distinct layers which were previously muffled by my subwoofer or ignored by my Shures. The X5s have absolutely excellent coverage. It goes without saying that you won’t feel the bass in your chest, but it’s punchy and right now on Deerhunter’s Cryptograms, I actually feel like someone is tapping (lightly) on the inside of my skull.

Tone balance is also excellent: although the bass is big, it’s totally transparent and the mids and highs punch right through. If there’s a weak point, I’d say it’s the mid-lows, which may not have the presence of the mids nor the power of the bass. The high end is easily as clear as my e2cs; as I write this I’m hearing a high hat crashing in the left channel of a song I listened to a ton with them, and it’s entirely new to me.

Like many in-ear headphones, the sound “space” is fantastic. Although I wouldn’t trust these over full-sized headphones for directional sound in games, music seems to take up your whole head. There is no feeling of the sound being shot into my ear from some external source like with external earbuds. They block outside noise well, but only as much as you’d expect from something that sits in your ear canal; they don’t make as much of a point of it as I feel Shure does (and follows through with). One bit of trouble I had (YMMV) was that the seal of the silicon with my ear was near perfect but not complete, which made the wind literally whistle through the tiny gaps here and there when I walked. It’s probably my mutant ears’ fault, but I’d say that if you really must have absolute isolation, be very picky about which tips you put on the things and how you stick them in your ears.

The phones themselves are tiny, and I must say, a bit weird-looking. Their form factor is such that they protrude somewhat from your ears. Not the most streamlined look, but you can be safe in your conviction that while someone else might have a cooler-looking pair, you’re getting a lot more out of your music. They come with several pairs of silicon ear-bits; my ears fit the default pair the best, but there are large and small pairs as well as double-flanged versions for those of you who are truly freakish. The cord is as you might expect, plain and a bit thinner than normal. The curved attachment looks cool and makes it harder to jerk the headphones out of their socket, although when events like that did happen (cord caught on a chair or what have you) they shot right out of my ears like bullets and their little flaps got inverted. The hole from which the music fires is extremely small and you will get earwax in it; luckily you can easily clean them out with a nice little tool they include or a pin, either of which fit comfortably in the very sweet little travelling case they come with.

Now comes the hardest part: admitting how expensive they are. Yes, it’s more than $100. Yes, it’s more than $200. Yes, they cost $250 and you probably won’t find them for less than that. Now, I want you to try to believe me when I tell you that these are worth every penny. I paid $100 for my Shures two years ago and was happy with them ā€” the clarity and isolation were worth that at least, and these X5s are probably twice the headphones they are, and then you have a little luxury tax on top of that (what are you gonna do?). You can get them here from the Klipsch site if you feel like taking the plunge. I highly recommend it, your music won’t ever sound the same again.