JLab Audio Epic In-Ear Headphones Review
Great sound at an even better price
When shopping for a new pair of headphones it'll quickly be apparent that price doesn't always equal performance. That’s why when a manufacturer offers great sound at an affordable price, we stand up and take notice. Enter the JLab Audio Epic Earbuds (MSRP: $49.99), a seemingly modest pair of in-ears that punch well above their weight class.
The Epics have a few specialty features that help elevate the design—like a tangle-resistant cable and so-called "cush fins"—tiny flaps that extend up from the buds to nestle more firmly into the rook of your ear. The Epics also produce a rich, consumer-friendly sound with practically no distortion and enough isolation to keep you focused on your tunes.
Even though they sound great, you're going to have to pay extra if you want the stylish looks of the competition. The Epics are a solid investment for notably balanced sound and a durable construction that won’t go anywhere once you put them in.
Thanks to a few standout features, they're a step above average
Don't let the plastic housing fool you, the Epics have an unusual design that belies their value-level construction. There are also a few bonus features that sweeten the deal and make the Epics far more than they seem to be at first glance.
The Epics use a standard 3.5mm audio jack connected to a flat, tangle-resistant cable that’s about 4.5 feet long. It ends with a casing that’s shaped like a teardop and stylized with JLab’s three-piece logo. While we went with the jet black/granite color option, you can choose from solid jet black, electric blue/graphite, or glitter gold/cloud. The casing is plastic and doesn't seem particularly durable, but JLab did include a little surprise via the attached gel cush fin.
While in-ears get bonus points for their portability, they have a whole other set of problems that over- and on-ears don’t. We often have a bad habit of shoving our in-ears a little further than they’re meant to go, which can lead to discomfort. But, if we don’t push them in far enough it’s all too easy for them to fall out. JLab killed two birds with one stone by including cush fins.
Cush fins are, as the name implies, small gel inserts that are attached between the casing and the gel tips, and are meant to be turned so they fit snug in one of the crevices of your ear. The added support practically guarantees they won’t fall out and should ensure that you don’t jam them too far into your ear either. Be careful, though—if you turn them too far they can get uncomfortable very quickly.
While the tangle-resistant cable is another big deal that makes these buds excel, JLab also included an in-line remote for added control. It’s a single-button remote that can be used to play/pause your music and skip/rewind tracks. The lack of volume control is unfortunate—especially when you’re on a crowded subway and are forced to fish your phone out of your pocket—but ultimately not bad enough to be a deal breaker.
In-ears are notoriously fragile and it won’t take long for most pairs to break from being wrapped around your phone or in a ball and shoved in your pocket. Plenty of manufacturers subtly hint that this is a terrible way to treat their product by including a carrying case to help keep your in-ears safe when you’re not using them. The case here is a sturdy, zippered clamshell and is just big enough to hold the earbuds and a few spare tips and fins.
A carrying case won’t do you much good if you lose one of the gel tips, though. Thankfully JLab also included plenty of spare tips and cush fins of varying sizes. Along with the basic, medium sized tips that come on the buds, there are three alternate sizes included: a small, another medium, and large. There are also two double-flange tips—which block a touch more ambient sound compared to the standard tips—in a small and medium size. Rounding out the collection are three alternatives to the cush fins—a simple circle, a medium-sized variety with a small fin, and a version with a large fin.
We’d recommend taking the extra time when you first get the Epics to try out the different sizes and styles to find the perfect fit. Not only will the earbuds be more comfortable to wear for longer periods of time, but they’ll also be far more secure so you don’t have to worry about them falling out if you go for a run.
Surprisingly good for the price
The Epics don't stop at interesting features though. They also produce rich, detailed sound across the audible spectrum. Whether you’re listening to classic rock, soulful jazz, or the bright airy sounds of an orchestra, it’s going to sound great coming from the Epics.
This is in large part thanks to how the Epics reproduce music across the frequency spectrum. In the chart you can see that they closely follow what’s known as an equal-loudness contour (represented by the blue line in the graph). An equal-loudness contour boosts sounds that are naturally more difficult for the human ear to pick up—like sub-bass and some high frequency sounds—so they can be heard equally as well as the other types of sounds.
No matter how good the sound is it won’t matter if outside sound leaks in and contaminate it. Thankfully, in-ears have a natural advantage when it comes to blocking ambient sound from interrupting your jam session. This is compounded by the double-flange gel tips that are packaged with the Epics because they're able to block even more sound.
If you use public transport to get to work, you know how obnoxious the subway or bus engines can be. A good pair of headphones with plenty of natural isolation can drop the relative volume of those engines until they’re a shadow of their former selves. The Epics don’t quite reach this level. While they do diminish those deep bass sounds, it’ll only be enough to take the edge off. Midrange sounds, like office chatter or the general bustle you hear on the streets, will receive a similar treatment and be lowered by about 25% of the original volume. The relative volume of higher frequency sounds will be dropped far lower, but it’s not very likely that you’ll encounter sounds in those ranges in your typical day.
A quick note: these results are based solely on the earbuds and don’t factor in the relative isolation that louder music affords. Also, plenty of people think the double-flange tips are uncomfortable, so the benefits of blocking more ambient sound might not be worth the sacrifice in comfort.
There's a reasonable concern that cheaper headphones won't sound as good as more expensive models. If the build-quality is low, it can even be heard as distortion—fuzzy, crackling sounds—that lower the quality of your tunes. You won’t have to worry about that with the Epics though, which had practically imperceptible distortion. Rest assured that you won’t have to sacrifice quality while you save money on these earbuds.
It’s hard to argue with the rich, consumer friendly sound of the Epics especially considering it’s paired with solid construction and specialty features like the cush fins. Even though they don’t get top marks for looks, the low price point makes them an easy buy for anyone that wants more bang for their buck.
But, if you want premium sound with good looks to match it we’d recommend shelling out the extra cash for the JBL Synchros S200i (MSRP: $129.95). They have a handsome, spoke design and rich, balanced sound that also follows an equal-loudness contour. All of which was enough for them to win a 2014 Best of Year Award for Best In-Ear Heapdhones.
If you want to spend just a little more money and like the idea of earbuds that better fit your ears, the Contours (MSRP: $59.99) from Decibullz might fit the bill. Typical custom molds can cost upwards of $1,000 and are painful to boot. Instead, the Contours feature twin custom molds that can be shaped via a simple, painless process using hot water. Decibullz may be the new kid on the block but they’re poised to cause quite a stir.
Innovation comes at a cost though and the sacrifice in build quality can quickly come back to bite you and likewise not everyone has $130 to spend on a pair of in-ears. Without sacrificing quality—in build or sound—the Epics from JLab offer a surprisingly solid balance that place them a step above the competition.
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