When we heard about the Sync by 50 headphones from SMS Audio, our hearts soared. We hoped that company founder and hip-hop star 50 Cent — or Fiddy, or Fif, or Cent, or Curtis, or whatever the hip-hop cognoscenti are calling him this week — would tap his fabled entrepreneurial skills and no-nonsense business attitude to create the world’s first hip-hop headphones that don’t at least kinda suck.
Yet at the same time, our ears cringed. We feared that the flashy Sync by 50 would reprise the overhyped bass, muddy midrange, and screeching treble that have been the norm for hip-hop headphones. So we awaited the ship date with an elegiac mix of optimism and despair.
When the review sample arrived last week, we immediately subjected the SMS-WS — the $399 higher-end model in the line — to S+V’s ultra-exclusive headphone obstacle course. Obstacle 1: A panel of three listeners, each with different tastes, different ages, differently shaped ears, and different genders. (Well, two of us shared the same gender.) Obstacle 2: A G.R.A.S. ear-cheek simulator connected to a Clio FW audio analyzer so we could run some technical measurements.
First, I have to describe the Sync by 50, because as with their creator, the design, packaging and ornamentation are far enough over the top that you have to admire the … well, whatever the hip-hop slang for chutzpah is. You can get the SMS-WS in gloss black or gloss white. No matter which color you get, the look is big and brash. On each earcup is a large S symbol illuminated in bright blue. As if this alone wouldn’t get you enough attention, the blue lights flash periodically while the headphone is in wireless mode. There’s an “airplane mode” that turns this feature off, but if I flew with these suckers I’d definitely want it flashing. I’ve always said, never bury the bling.
Yep, I said wireless mode. The SMS-WS comes with a transmitter that uses Kleer lossless transmission technology. (The $299 Street by 50 lacks this feature.) A Kleer dongle about the size of a small matchbox is included. Stick the dongle’s integral 3.5mm plug into your phone, iPod, or computer, and you supposedly get the same high sound quality you’d get with a cable. As contributing tech editor and listening panelist Geoff Morrison discovered, you can walk about 30 feet from the transmitter without losing signal. (And that was through two walls.) Up to four pairs of Sync by 50 headphones can be paired with the same transmitter.
You can also connect the SMS-WS directly to your phone, iPad, etc., with a blue cable that includes a microphone and a push-to-talk switch.
The right earcup has an on/off/mute button and another button that activates the THUMPP Enhanced Bass feature. Surely you’re wondering: Is THUMPP an actual acronym, or merely one of the hip-hop world’s de rigueur myzspellyngz? Sadly, the manual does not elaborate, so like 50 Cent himself, THUMPP remains an enigma.
The left earcup has volume up/down buttons (ineffective in wired mode) and forward/reverse track skip buttons. The manual says that the track skip buttons function only with USB (i.e., computer) and 30-pin (i.e., iPod/iPhone/iPad) transmitters, neither of which were supplied with our review sample.
You may have noticed something’s missing: active noise cancellation. A strange omission, since ANC would seem a necessary feature for awesome airplane bling like the Sync by 50.
You have to synchronize the headphones with the Kleer dongle the first time you use them. Fortunately, I found the process comparable to that of most Bluetooth headphones and easier than with some recent wireless stuff. After the ’phones are synced, the S logos on the sides of the ear cups blink every 6 seconds or so.
All three of our panelists — Geoff, L.A.-based voice actress/singer Lauren Dragan, and I — found the Sync by 50 above-average in comfort. The soft, leather-covered foam ear pads provide ample cushioning, and the ’phones squeeze your head firmly but not so tight that it gets uncomfortable after a half-hour’s worth of tunes. Lauren did complain that the look was plasticky and Geoff thought the flashing lights were obnoxious, but of course those are matters of opinion.
The semi-hardshell case is a sweet piece, with elastic webbing to hold the cord and included adapters and even a spot for the Kleer dongle.
Brent Butterworth and Geoff Morrison combine their years of gear testing and knowledge in one überblog of irreverence and techiness.
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