Until recently I hadn’t paid much attention to Skullcandy’s headphones and headsets. The company’s focus on extreme sports, punk- and hip-hop-inspired aesthetics, and too-clever product names (case in point: “Smokin’ Buds”) suggested I might not be in the target audience. However, many of Skullcandy’s products, particularly its inexpensive "canalbud" models, have gotten good buzz from headphone geeks at HeadRoom (an online headphone dealer) and on the Head-Fi headphone forums, so I was curious to see how the Skullcandy 50/50 compared to other canalbud headsets I’ve tested.
A quick refresher: Canalbuds are headphones that essentially split the difference, in design and often in price, between traditional earbuds and in-ear-canal (“canalphone”) models. Since they fit partially in the ear canal, they can block some external noise and form an acoustic seal that improves bass performance. However, they don’t block as much sound as true canalphone models, and, as with canalphones, getting a proper fit can be tricky, the cord can produce unwanted microphonic noise in a listener’s ear, and using the headset function can be weird due to the occlusion effect of having your ears plugged while talking.
The 50/50 (named, according to Skullcandy, because they’re “half mic, half bud, and all boom”) comes with pairs of small, medium and large rubber eartips, as well as a circular, black-nylon carrying case. The 50/50’s earpieces are primarly white plastic with green-plastic and metal accents (including the Skullcandy logo). The right-hand section of the 50/50’s green cables hosts a white, Apple-style, three-button (control, volume up, and volume down) inline remote/microphone pod. A white-plastic piece connects the left and right cables, and the cable ends in a white-plastic, straight miniplug. The plastic feels dense and resilient, and it should hold up well in active use. The 50/50 is also available in black/chrome, white/chrome, black/blue, and black/red versions.
The 50/50’s earpieces are easy to fit properly in the ear, and they rest at a moderate depth that provides good isolation from outside noise. However, the earpieces hurt my ears after an hour or so, thanks to the large, short earpieces, though this issue may be specific to my ear anatomy. The 50/50’s inline remote works well, although I had a little trouble distinguishing between the three buttons; I would have preferred the buttons to be better defined.
I tested the 50/50’s audio performance in a variety of settings (home, office, street, and bus) listening to both compressed and lossless music. I used the 50/50 directly out of my iPhone’s headphone jack as well as through a HeadRoom Total BitHead headphone amplifier.
Listening to the 50/50, there was no doubt that the headset was designed to focus on bass. In terms of pure bass volume, they beat out other bass-heavy models such as the Radius Atomic Bass, Klipsch Image S4i and V-moda Vibe II. Low bass was excellent, kick drums sounded the best I’d heard on canalbuds, and managed to suggest some of the physical impact you’d get from a large set of speakers. Mid- and upper-bass were over-emphasized, however, making many recordings sound muddy. Switching to my trusty Comply eartips tamed the 50/50’s bass a bit, but it was still much more than I wanted. When not overwhelmed by the bass, midrange and treble frequencies sounded good and were well-defined.
(The one place this extra bass was welcome was when gaming on my iPhone: The 50/50’s low end enhances explosions in action games such as N.O.V.A. and gives more kick to the bass-heavy soundtracks of games such as Canabalt and Geometry Wars.)
In my testing, the 50/50’s microphone performance was below average. Compared to the iPhone’s included earbuds, as well as to the best microphones in my previous roundup, test recordings of my voice made with the 50/50 were on the quiet side and sounded thin due to a lack of lower frequencies. A friend confirmed this assessment in a test call, commenting that I sounded “distant” compared to the iPhone 4’s built-in microphone. In other words, I wouldn’t buy the 50/50 primarily for phone calls, but it’s fine for taking the occasional call while you’re listening to music.
Despite finding its bass to be often overwhelming, I think the 50/50 is a nice headset for certain audiences. I know there are plenty of listeners out there, particularly those who listen to electronic music and hip-hop, and those who play games on their portable devices, who will love the bass, and I have no trouble recommending this model to them, especially given its price. It’s also worth considering if the look of your headphones is important (and you like the Skullcandy style.) However, listeners looking for more balanced sound should consider the similarly priced NuForce NE-7Mor, for a little more, the excellent Maximo iP-HS5.