The Rs 1,000-2,000 price bracket is saturated with IEMs that range from different variations of disappointing to titan-killers that give rivals costing twice as much a run for their money. However, the earphone spectrum rarefies beyond the two thousand rupee mark, where the variation in sound quality between contenders isn't as dramatic as it's evident in the lower end of IEM totem pole. Priced at Rs 2,499, Creative's brand new HS660i2 joins the sparse ranks of mid-end in-ear earphones such as the Brainwavz M1, SoundMAGIC PL50, and Sennheiser CX300. The brand is well known amongst the IEM-worshipping crowd mainly for its budget-conscious EP-630 IEMs, which offer great value for money, if not the most balanced performance. The HS660i2, however, is targeted at the more discerning listeners, who seek more than just plentiful bass in their IEMs.
The Creative HS660i2 sounds excellent for the price, but is let down by poor build quality
Design, build quality and hands-free
These mid-end Creative offering bears a striking resemblance to the CX300 with its characteristic hemispherical enclosures. However, this IEM opts for the flamboyance of chrome accents surrounding the pastel shades of five variants available in white, blue, pink, green and black. This is in stark contrast to the understated design cues of the Sennheiser. While the CX300 bears a protective cable guide originating from the enclosures, the HS660i2's wire emerges from the chassis without any such safeguard against wire-stripping tensile forces. Not surprisingly, initial consumer reports on the Internet have instances of users reporting such damage. Moreover, the cable is too short to be used with anything but your iPhone or PMP. Then again, this isn't exactly supposed to be a desktop audio solution. To put it in a nutshell: the white version I have received for review looks quite adorable, but that still doesn't change the fact that the overall build quality and finish levels don't quite justify its asking price of Rs 2,499.
The inline remote control bearing the mic, for example, is quite poorly built and has already began coming apart right out of the box. Moreover, the inline remote is on the wrong side (which is the right-channel side, in a twist of irony) and bears buttons that exhibit poor tactile feedback. This isn't helped by the fact that the phone's advertised hands-free functionality doesn't seem to work for most Android, Windows Phone, or rather any thing except iDevices that these IEMs are optimised for. This is a common bugbear for phones incorporating the standard 3.5 mm TRRS jack, which unfortunately features two distinct flavours bearing interchanged mic and ground leads. This is pretty much why the inline microphone doesn't work for most non-Apple devices. Having said that, if you have an iPhone, iPod or iPad, these features function just as advertised.
The angled acoustic chamber does wonder for soundstage and imaging
Ergonomics and isolation
The Creative HS660i2 incorporates super comfortable silicone ear tips that strike just the right balance between noise isolation/bass retention and comfort. They fit snugly and are surprisingly the only IEMs I have encountered that don't fall off when jogging, despite lacking an ear clip. These earphones nestle comfortably and become one with the ear canal with such ease that they allow you to hear music for hours on end. The cable too doesn't conduct much friction and wind noise, which is great news for joggers and bike riders. Sound isolation is spot on, which makes them ideal for long and noisy city commutes. The dark sonic presentation (warm tonality that's slightly on the bass heavy side) combines with the excellent mechanical dampening provided by the ear tips to reduce ambient noise by a great degree. To be honest, this is the factor that matters the most for IEMs that will mostly be used outdoors.
That still doesn't mean that the Creative HS660i2 needs to hide behind the chaos of the city to sound acceptable. Its excellent sound quality shines through even in the tranquil confines of your house. As mentioned earlier, this IEM's tonal balance is on the darker end of the spectrum, which makes it especially ideal for commuting. However, unlike most darker sounding alternatives at this price range, the HS660i2's 9 mm neodymium drivers have better control over the quality and quantity of the low-end frequencies. Despite just some 15-odd hours of break in, the bass is surprisingly tight for a product selling at this price. The bass authority is admirable, while also ensuring that the lower rumbling notes decay with pleasing agility. This means, the HS660i2 can handle bass much better than the boomy and imprecise fare found in the Brainwavz M1 and, to some extent, even in the Sennheiser CX300. Needless to say, EDM tracks from David Guetta and his ilk sound quite punchy and interesting with these earphones. Just don't expect these to go too low and pack the punch of more expensive multi-driver IEMs.
The inline mic and controls work reliably only with iDevices
However, this doesn't mean that the midrange and higher frequencies are neglected. One of the main reasons why I like these IEMs, despite their build quality niggles, is due to their excellent tonal balance. The midrange is clear and prominent, with a strong centre image that prevents vocals and guitars from being drowned out in bass. Whether it's Carla Lother's smooth vocals or the sharp, crisp delivery of Lara Fabian, the HS660i2 managed to capture the tonal accuracy and place them accurately in the soundstage with a level of competence that's admirable at this price. The highs may not be overwhelmingly shimmery, but they pack a surprising amount of detail. This was evident in the many audiophile grade FLAC recordings of jazz and western classical pieces. What's more, the soundstage is sufficiently large, with a good deal of separation between the instruments. This means, I was able to differentiate between each pairs of guitars, bass and drums in one of many Chesky Studio's test tracks that I auditioned for this review.
Verdict and price in India
What you have here is a mid-end IEM sporting brilliant tonal balance that allows it to sound well with almost any genre of music. It's comfortable and keeps ambient noise at bay well enough to be used in noisy Bombay traffic. The soundstage is wide and expansive with a strong centre image and great separation between instruments. The icing on the cake is that this is one of the rare IEMs that delivers great quantity and quality of bass, without compromising on mids and high-frequency detail. The only problem is that the Creative HS660i2 seems to fall apart the moment you take it out of the box, whereas the hands-free functionality doesn't seem to work on most non iDevices.
The cable is short but is sized just right for phones and PMPs
However, if these serious build quality and compatibility issues trouble you, you may want to consider the sublime Cowon EM1, which is an Android-friendly hands-free headset that costs substantially less, but has slightly lower sonic fidelity as well. It will last you much longer, though. Alternatively, if you don't care about an inline microphone, but are willing to spend a bit more for good sound quality, the Signature Acoustics C-12 Elements IEM should be a fine choice—that is, as long as you use a good source with it. Having said that, if you are willing to restrict your usage to an iPhone or a PMP, and are willing to treat your IEMs with kid gloves, the overall sound quality of the Creative HS660i2 makes it well worth the price.
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