Here’s a set of cans that’s big and bold without getting brash, and gets its rhythmic timing just right.
FOR YEARS, SKULLCANDY has made major inroads into the headphone market. The secret to the company’s success was treating headphones like fashion accessories by making them über cool, with a bewildering array of styles and colour schemes, almost to the extent that the products could be seen as triumphs of form over function. Don’t get me wrong, these reasonably inexpensive ‘phones worked well enough, but it’s safe to say that ultimate audio fidelity wasn’t Skullcandy’s most pressing priority. This made zero difference to the company’s success because there was a massive market of hip young people just aching to spend money on trendy looking ‘phones that weren’t boring in black, ‘phones that matched their skateboards and their lifestyles.
The big, bold headphone has made a major comeback in recent years, which has also helped Skullcandy’s marketing efforts. As my colleague Gary Steel pointed out recently, he used to be just about the only bloke wandering the streets of Auckland with a huge set of headphones on his noggin, with everyone he knew telling him how uncool big ‘phones were when compared to the in-ear models popularised by Apple and supplied with untold millions of phones and music players. These days, it’s a very different story and headphones are far more common than they were a few years ago, with premium models proving very popular.
Skullcandy is obviously aware of the premium headphone space and while there’s no way the company will give up its share of the youth market or the lower-priced segment, there’s been a recent emphasis on lifting the audio quality across the range. Skullcandy has brought its R&D and design in house, and new engineering staff have been brought into the fold, including Dr. Tetsuro Oishi, who is the Director of Electrical and Acoustical Engineering. His job? To use his degrees in acoustics and electrical engineering to “improve the audio quality of all our products.”
This approach and new attention to detail seems to be paying off for Skullcandy. I was seriously impressed with the Mix Master headphones (as reviewed here). I was initially deeply skeptical of the idea of spending six-hundred smackers on a pair of Skullcandy ‘phones but the Mix Masters do what they do very well and they made me a believer in the concept of pricey Skullcandy products. The Aviator 2.0 is priced at half the Mix Master’s beefy asking rate but they have to do without any celebrity endorsement and fancy DJ fittings. So… can they stand on their own merits?
Design, Construction and Features
I deeply appreciate the way these ‘phone’s look, they’re apparently inspired by classic Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses but they could have easily been derived from a set of aviation style headphones straight out of a TV series – you know the ones, add a boom mic and they’d be at home on the head of “Howling Mad” Murdock as he pilots a stolen US Army Huey over a wall to rescue the A-Team. They’d also look perfect on T.C. while he zips that Hughes 500 across the sea to haul Magnum’s ass out of trouble. Okay, maybe the fire-engine red review units might be a bit over the top but they’re available in a number of more subtle hues, and some that are even less restrained. The looks are polarising though – my brother hates the styling with a passion, feeling that there’s just too much retro going on, but say what you like, these ‘phones are distinctive without being tawdry.
The build quality here is high. From the stitched headband to the extensive use of metal parts, the Aviator 2.0’s look and feel like a well built product. The only concerns would be the outside surface of the ear cups, which is a touch light and feels prone to scratching, but I’m assured that it’s actually the same polycarbonate used in the lenses of sunglasses, so it’s both tough and highly resistant to scratching. It would need to be rubbed on an abrasive surface to scratch it badly and slammed into a hard surface with some power to crack it. After weeks of use, the review units are pristine, so looks are deceiving. The fabric covered cable on the other hand looks weak and it tends to tangle and even kink easily – heck, it ties itself in knots at the drop of a hat and effortlessly bends to ninety degrees at the top of the jack where it exits a pocketed media player. On the upside, these ‘phones are supplied with a neatly stitched carry bag, which will protect them in transit (they fold down but because the cups don’t swivel, the bag is still pretty big), and the cable is detachable, so it could be replaced without too much hassle – still, it’s not hard to make a rugged, tangle free cable, and I’d expect this on a $300 product.
The packaging on the other hand, is exactly what I would expect at the price point. Skullcandy has obviously taken a leaf from Apple’s book and understood that the user experience with premium products starts before the user even handles the item. Here we have a nicely designed slipcover over a black box constructed with thick card, which opens to reveal beautifully printed gloss logos, a skull cutout and a great little user guide, complete with a stencil to allow the Skullcandy logo to be spray painted onto the owner’s gear. There’s even a branded microfibre cleaning cloth in the box. Critics may dismiss these touches as mere frippery, but you need to act the part if you want to own the role. Nice work Skullcandy – as an ex-student of the arts of volume design and packaging, I approve!
There’s an Apple-compatible mic and remote on the cable, which is another touch I like, although non-Apple users will as usual, be more than a little indifferent about this feature. It’s located well up the cable, close to the left earcup, which is a little off-putting at first because mics usually live further down the cable, but the operation is the same as all similar devices, so once you get used to the placement it’s not an issue.
Fit and comfort are critical in any ‘phones, be they ear or head. Initially the Aviator 2.0s and I didn’t get along. The springy headband was squeezing the soft earpads onto the sides of my head to the point where the driver cover was pushing against my ear; not to the vice like degree of a new pair of Sennheiser HD650’s but enough to be annoying.
However, I’m aware that I suffer from big-head syndrome. Nothing to do with the ego, I assure you, regardless of what Editor Steel might say; it’s just that my bone-dome is in large territory. So I had a brief wrestle with the headband and convinced it to apply less pressure, which alleviated the situation enough that the Aviator 2.0’s became quite comfortable. Skullcandy could use slightly higher density foam in the earcups, because I noticed that the Mix Masters had the same issue with pushing against my ears. This may well be a non-issue to most users though (maybe I’ve got big ears, too?)
The very first thing I noticed about the sound of the Aviator 2.0’s was the bass, which is tight, decently deep and oh so punchy. In terms of the low frequency extension, my initial listening notes describe it as a “delightful resonance” and by resonance, I certainly don’t mean to imply anything negative, it’s just that these ‘phones give the impression of listening to bigger drivers in a much bigger earcup than these 40mm Mylar ones. With a claimed 20Hz low-end extension, these ‘phones don’t plumb the very lowest depths but there’s a very satisfying sense of bass weight.
The driving bass line of ‘Power to the People’ by The Black Eyed Peas (Make Some Noise : Save Darfur double CD set) makes for a good illustration. On certain ‘phones (and many speaker systems), the bass line can sound soft and flabby, more big wobble than anything else, or it can even diminish to the point where it has far less impact than it should. On the Aviator 2.0’s though, it sounds like the stomping of thousands of feet, which is the exactly the way it should sound.
Far more important than sheer bass weight are the dynamics and overall impact that the Aviator 2.0’s bring to the party. Skullcandy talks about “Attacking Bass” when it comes to its Supreme Sound range of ‘phones (which includes the Aviators) and the company has nailed it. This is the same hard hitting and punchy character I heard on the Mix Masters and it’s just as effective (and addictive) here as it was on the more expensive Skullcandys. It’s hard to understand just how quick percussion can be on these ‘phone without hearing it for yourself.
Take one of my favourite new tracks for example – ‘Sail’ from AWOLNATION’s Megalithic Symphony. Set the volume on the iPhone to around 80 percent and wait for things to get intense. The track starts off with a short intro, which sounds okay, but when the real action starts at around 16 seconds, the drivers go to work and the impact is just spectacular. This is what I imagine it must be like to have a set of big JBL woofers strapped to your head and it’s what absolutely made the Aviator 2.0’s – they do a good job with almost all music but give them something powerful to play and they lift up from good to great and suddenly become worth the asking price.
With this kind of energetic sound, it’s hard to listen to music through these ‘phones and take it in as a lightweight cerebral background affair, especially when it comes to the more energetic tracks. These things could have been designed from the start to make albums such as The Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill, RATM’s The Battle of Los Angeles or The Black Angels’ Passover sound the way they should – big, hard and totally in your face. However, more chilled out tracks benefit from the dynamics on offer here, with something as mellow as Aimee Mann’s ‘High On Sunday 51’ from Lost In Space sounding anything but boring; in fact, the guitars, vocals and the bass line were really enjoyable.
The Aviator 2.0s do well in the rest of the frequency range as well. They’re accurate from top to bottom with an overall balance that’s American, for want of a better description. By this, I mean that they sound much like I’d expect a set of speakers by Klipsch or JBL to sound. The midrange and treble aren’t warm, sounding more like they’re coming from a speaker using metal drivers than one with smooth paper and silk dome drivers. There’s no sibilance at the top though, and this type of sound is no bad thing, because allied to the big bass and that punch, it’s cohesive, involving and lively. There’s a serious amount of detail on offer too, although in outright terms, the treble is marginally veiled, not rolled off as such, just less open then it could be. This is really picking at a minor fault but at $300, these ‘phones are under some serious scrutiny.
There are ‘phones out there that will put on a better show in terms of opening up the recording by highlighting detail, while others will be warmer and easier to listen to, perhaps more suited to a string quartet. But the Aviator 2.0’s do something very special with speed and impact. It’s a type of sound that I value highly, but some listeners might not want their ‘phones to be so well suited to Rage Against The Machine or System Of A Down.
I love the way these Aviator’s do hard and loud, so I found myself rocking out to some of the heaviest music in my iPod Classic, but still enjoying these ‘phones with stuff as relaxed as Sarah McLachlan. Between this potent yet versatile sonic character and the exceptional packaging, presentation and build quality, I’m tempted to forgive them their flaws and the price tag and hand them five stars, but that cable is a real let down. As it stands, I’m not sure it will last six months of my kind of use and that’s just not good enough. With a more rugged and tangle resistant cable (and slightly harder or deeper foam inserts in the earcups), I’d be happy to award these ‘phones our top rating, but as it stands, four-and-a-half stars will have to do. That said, I like them enough that I’m thinking about grabbing a pair of my own, just not in that bright red finish. ASHLEY KRAMER