Since Michael Phelps was seen sporting a pair in London this summer, Sol Republic headphones have been everywhere. And there's plenty of curiosity about the company itself, run by industry veterans Scott Hix and Kevin Lee, the son of Noel Lee — the Head Monster of Monster Cable, and the man who pretty much built today's headphone industry as the manufacturing force behind Beats.
All well and good. But should you buy headphones endorsed by a guy with water in his ears?
Sol Republic's are highly stylish, based around a kit of interchangeable parts — headbands, driver modules, and cables, and buyers can mix and match elements and colors to create their own personalized gear. The approach also makes for easy replacement of damaged components without incurring full replacement cost. Cool stuff.
The three headphones we looked at share headbands and cables, and differ only in their drive units; the differently voiced units are referred to as "V8" (for the Tracks), "V10" (for the Tracks HD), and "V12" (in the case of the Tracks Ultra). Beyond that they're the same, color aside.
The downside of this arrangement, based on a plastic strip headband (very well designed, by the way — it seems just about unbreakable, and offers just enough padding at the crown to be comfortable) onto which one can slide the driver units, means the earcups have very little play in any direction. I personally need a little rotation, and simply couldn't get a truly comfortable fit, even after hours of listening. So definitely try these on before you buy. And there's no cable running through the minimalist headband, which means the detachable, replaceable cable is a yoke style model, not my favorite arrangement.
The original Tracks headphone, based on the V8 driver unit, is the darkest and most bass forward of the trio; there's so much bass here that it can — depending on your choice of material, — overwhelm the midrange. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, given that the V8 is much more in line with the prevailing taste for a seriously bass-forward headphone than anything else in the Sol Republic lineup. And as we keep finding, there's a place for very bass-heavy 'phones even for folks who don't want to thump it up — out and about, a more mid-forward voicing would just seem overly thin in the face of street noise, traffic rumble, etcetera.
The Tracks HD, built around the V10 driver, has a subjectively more balanced response across the frequency spectrum. there's still a ton of low end, but overall sound signature has noticeably more upper midrange, and is more forgiving of program material focusing on guitars, strings, female vocalists, and the like. It's a clearer headphone in the upper registers as well.
Both the V8 and V10 are, to my ear, a little exaggerated and cloudy sounding in the lower bass; the V8, for me, is also a bit wooly in the midrange; the big bottom tends to spill over into the midrange. The V10 also sounds a bit veiled to me through the mids.
The Tracks Ultra, with the V12 driver, is the flattest sounding of the Tracks siblings, with far less bloom in the bass (it's significantly more controlled and damped in the lower octaves), though there's a distinct midrange emphasis. Upper registers sound similar to the V10 (and there's still some fuzzy softness through the midrange) but it's even brighter — there's even more clarity up top. It's just a more orderly sounding headphone.
Basically, the choice between the three models comes down to what sort of EQ tilt you like. All models are similarly efficient; the original Tracks has the darkest sound, with very forward bass; the HD version reins in the low end a bit, and provides more clarity; the Ultra version is leaner still, with a balance that nods toward audiophile tastes.
I checked out a variety of material to compare the headphones, and was surprised by how clear the distinctions between the driver units were. Listening to pianist Fred Hersch's Personal Favorites on SACD. the solo on "Secret Love" sounded almost underwater on the V8, came into focus with the V10, and emerged, natural sounding and without undue resonances, on the V12. If you're a fan of acoustic music and you dig the Sol Republic look, the Ultra is the only phone you should consider. I compared again with a number of vocal discs, including old standbys such as Radka Toneff's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" and Gillian Welch's Time the Revelator album, and found no deviations from the rule. Like real instruments? The Ultra V12 is your Sol Republic 'phone.
Next I cued up the 24/96 DVD-A of Deaf Forever: The Best of Motorhead (yes, I really did), and found the V12 a bit lightweight and thin for "Ace of Spades" and "Overkill" — enjoyable, of course (but you can't really miss with those tunes). I much preferred the extra oomph (and somewhat foggier overall image) of the V10. The V8 I found a little boomy and overly cluttered sounding, especially on the double-kick intro to the latter tune. I'd declare the V10/ Tracks HD the winner here. Turning to Living Colour's Collideoscope, again on DVD-A at 24/96 resolution, I thought the V12s did a bit better against the V10s, but the V8's presentation submerged the subtleties of Doug Wimbish's bass playing (at once abyss-deep and clockwork precise) in a mess of boom.
Pop Sci's resident headphone reviewer Dan Nosowitz compared these to the two sets he uses every day, the V-Moda M-80 and, for a change, the Klipsch Image S4 in-ears, and he felt that both of his daily drivers outperformed all three of the Sol Republic models. He felt that by comparison with the V-Moda's, all of the Tracks models had "problems with clarity, namely not enough — vocals were indistinct, and instruments didn't have enough detail." Dan turned to a couple of favorite tracks: The Tallest Man on Earth's banjo-driven "The Blizzard's Never Seen the Desert Sands" and Jay Reatard's lo-fi pop-punk anthem "It Ain't Gonna Save Me," and in both cases felt that a lack of instrumental detail kept the Tracks and Tracks HD from being enjoyable, despite their bass punch. For Dan, the Ultra brought out the banjo's tone on the Tallest Man track in an acceptable way, still found the vocals too colored even on that phone, with a distinctly tubey, cupped hands effect. I didn't note this myself, and it might well be an effect of varying fit, but as with anything headphoney, your mileage may — and will — vary.
If you're a serious basshead, and like overwhelming low end from your hip hop tracks, however, you might like the original Tracks. I turned here to 808 State's Newbuild and Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx — I found the original Tracks a little dark and crowded sounding for my taste. As with the hard rock tracks, the HD did a better job of balancing some presence with the substantial low-end kick that both of the less expensive models exhibited, but even on this sort of material, I preferred the Ultras; there's just a better sense of "instrumental" separation.
To some extent Dan appreciated the "absurdly oversized bass" of these headphones, and of the only somewhat more restrained Tracks HD, while auditioning Chiddy Bang's "Jacuzzi (Lost in the Vapors), but even on this bass-heavy track a "lack of quality in the vocals" left him wanting; he also found that a resonant peak in the Ultra version overemphasized the syncopated synthetic cowbell that punctuates the track.
Like Dan, I'm not sure I'd choose any of the Tracks models over the V-Moda M-80 — by comparison with that headphone, all of the Sol Republics sound a bit fuzzy and unfocused in the midrange, at least to my ear, and the V-Moda's more comfortable. Of course, the M-80 is more expensive than any of the Tracks models, of course, and it's got a very, very different look. Perhaps this was a fit issue (I never got quite comfortable with the non articulated ear cup approach, though it does look quite striking, and the interchangeability of parts really appeals to my geekier side), but then again, the M-80 doesn't fit everybody either.