They fit Ashley Kramer’s melon head, but also had an indefinable X-Factor that made him need to own a pair. Skullcandy, you’re onto a winner.
TWO SETS OF Skullcandy ‘phones have made their way through the good Witchdoctor’s doors and onto my head in recent times, and in both cases they received very positive reviews. The $599 Mix Master (reviewed here) and the $299 Aviator (reviewed here) revealed a depth of audio engineering ability that wasn’t quite anticipated from a brand that once seemed more style than substance. Skullcandy is doing a lot of in-house R&D these days, and is also manufacturing its own drivers, so there’s a real focus on sound quality. When the local Skullcandy agents sent up the new Navigator model, I was hoping for a continuation of the previous good form.
Features & Construction
The Aviators are a good-looking set of ‘phones, but the on-ear Navigators take the optically inspired (i.e. sunglass frames) classic retro design to a new level. Featuring transparent earcups (in the blue model at least), exposed external wiring between headband and earcups, and shiny gunmetal accents, these ‘phones are some of the most stylish around, standing out even in a world of bright, bling-laden models. In the black or white finishes, they’d be at home in a ‘60s action movie or a remake of the epic ‘Sabotage’ video by The Beastie Boys, but the blue finish is the pick of the crop.
The overall design is very similar to the Aviators, but the Navigators are much smaller because the on-ear design allows for compact, low profile earcups. This means that they’re lightweight, and fold down to a relatively compact size to slip into the supplied cloth carry bag. Despite their svelteness, the Navigators are sturdy, casually shrugging off my high-intensity abuse – bending, twisting and flexing revealed no major weak points in the construction, and consistently lobbing them into the car, wearing them to the gym and lugging them to work and back for weeks had no effect at all.
The drivers are 40mm mylar units, apparently identical to the ones in the Aviators, which is a good sign considering how good that model sounded. A single detachable cable is supplied – complete with inline Apple microphone/remote. The 3.5mm mini jack at the device end of the cable is a straight design where it really should be a 90-degree connector, because the straight type takes a pounding living in pockets. At least the cable is easily replaceable when the connector eventually breaks.
The Navigators are among the most comfortable ‘phones that have crossed my path. The driver covers of many over the ear models put pressure on my ears because of overly soft padding. On the on-ear Navigators the padding is just right – Skullcandy refers to the pads as “ear pillows”, and that’s accurate enough. The ‘phones just sit on the ears and don’t seem to create hotspots or poke and prod in any way. There’s sparse padding on the headband, but once the ‘phones are properly adjusted the user will barely be aware of it. There’s also plenty of adjustment, and I found it easy to get the fit just right for even my large melon head.
There’s a good degree of isolation from external noise and not too much of the music escapes to annoy colleagues or fellow travellers or diners. The Navigators hold their position on the ears very well indeed, which makes them excellent for active use. Even the buttons on the in-line mic/remote are prominent enough to be easily accessible every time. Some manufacturers specialise in making these controls as small and obscure as possible, but not Skullcandy.
It’s worth noting that the review took place in the depths of winter. These ‘phones were great in that environment because they provided some degree of insulation and warmth, almost like earmuffs. They even sound good over my tight fitting beanies and slot in under my huge beanie as well, which came in handy. However, in a blazing summer there’s definitely going to be some sweat developing between the “leather” pillows and the ears, but I used the Navigators repeatedly in a heated gym and just gave them a wipe on my shirt every so often, so this wasn’t a major hassle.
If the Navigators are just on-ear versions of the Aviator right down to the drivers, then the sound should be similar. It is, or at least it is after a while. Fresh from the box, the bass tuning sounded a little enthusiastic. There was just too much low end, and I wondered if Skullcandy had gone for an “extra-bass” sonic signature in the style of Sony’s MDR-XB series ‘phones.
Fortunately, this exuberance was mostly tamed by an hour hooked up to an iPod at nigh on maximum volume, at which point it shifted from over the top to merely bountiful. Perhaps it’s the smaller earcups housing a full sized 40mm driver, or maybe it’s the on-ear design, but whatever the reason the Navigators deliver more bass weight than the Aviators, and even after many hours of use, I couldn’t find fault with that. Some of my favourite ‘phones for mobile use have lots of bass – out in the real world, where trains, planes, buses and noisy co-workers compete for your frequency range, some bottom end heft is a plus.
Like the other Skullcandy ‘phones that I’ve heard, the Navigators punch hard. They’re extremely energetic at the lowest parts of the frequency range, and for all the bass weight, it’s beautifully controlled, not to mention fast and intense.
This effect continues up into the midrange, which is once again voiced in the idiom of a big set of American loudspeakers – think Klipsch and you’ll get the picture. The treble is clear, nicely extended and contributes to an open, natural and relatively smooth sound. Detail levels are very good at the price, and while there’s only a limited amount of soundstage width, that’s an acceptable effect of the low profile, on-ear design.
‘Sail’ from AWOLNATION’s Megalithic Symphony CD is a track that puts any set of ‘phones to the test thanks to its powerful bass line and a trebly quality that’s almost invasively harsh at high levels. Driven from an iPhone and cranked up loud, the Navigators slammed virtually as hard as Logitech UE’s active UE6000 headphones, but the bass on the Skullcandy’s was noticeably more controlled and tighter.
Another killer test track for ‘phones is Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Sleep Now In The Fire’ from The Battle of Los Angeles. There’s bass power to die for, enough detail captured in the recording to highlight deficiencies in any transducer and a harsh energy-laden treble that feels as if it could sear paint at high levels. Turned up towards the top of the iPhone’s volume limit, the Navigators laughed off the test, driving the huge drum strikes with brutal force, delivering plenty of detail in the guitars, drums and vocals while keeping the top end manageable.
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s ‘Tin Pan Alley’ from The Essential Stevie Ray Vaughan is a long way removed from the speed and forcefulness of the previous two tracks but it’s no less revealing of the limitations of a set of ‘phones. The big bass line that runs through the entire track has to rumble menacingly in the background, but some ‘phones make it a bloated warble devoid of insight; while others don’t really manage to deliver it with any believable weight. The Navigators handled this easily, and they did a great job with the attack of the drum strikes, particularly the ones at around 5:10. The guitars and vocals were also deftly rendered with plenty of detail, and a surprising amount of delicacy was present on the softly struck cymbals.
There are masses of choices at this price point in all kinds of shapes and sizes. That said, you’d find it hard to buy more style and I defy you to buy as much fun as you get with the Navigators.
A couple of weeks into the review, I suddenly had an epiphany. I’d basically stopped using all my other ‘phones, picking up the Navigators to take to work, to the gym or for a walk. I was even using them at home in preference to firing up one of the Cambridge Audio Minx Air wireless speaker systems in residence at the time.
This is unusual given that I’ve got way too many ‘phones, from budget models to a set of Sennheiser HD650’s and everything in between. The better multi-driver in-ear models that I usually grab will easily beat the comparatively inexpensive Navigators to death in outright audiophile terms, but something about the Skullcandy ‘phones was making me choose them every time. This X-factor comes down to the excellent comfort, the portability, durability and the fact that they’re just so much fun to listen to. It’s impossible to listen to music you love without getting seriously involved and having a blast.
So I’d effectively adopted the Navigators (or they’d adopted me) and it would have been cruel to send them back to the agents to be subjected to the tender mercies of an ex-demo sale. So I’ve asked the importers if I can buy the review set. That’s the best recommendation that I can give. For two hundred bucks plus change, they’re a great buy. ASHLEY KRAMER