Ah, celebrity-endorsed headphones — whether it’s Beats by Dre or Soul by Ludacris, you’ve always gotta wonder whether their actual sound-reproduction chops will match up with the steep price tags and fashion-focused designs. Oftentimes, shocker of shockers, the answer is a resounding “no.” One of the newest entrants into this game is SYNC by 50, stemming from a long collaboration between Sleek AudioSMS Audio and none other than Curtis James Jackson III — 50 Cent, of course. Unlike the partners’ $250 Street offering, these headphones have the unique selling point of offering both wireless and wired operation, a convenience for which you’ll pay a staggering $400. Although they don’t offer active noise-cancellation like competing models, these headphones are banking on Kleer’s tried-and-true wireless audio technology, which touts 16-bit CD-quality resolution. We spent several weeks testing these spendy sound-blasters, so continue on to our full review to learn whether they live up to the hype or could us to a second trip back to the studio for remastering.
As far as headphones go, the SYNCs arrive in a particularly massive package. During our unboxing, we were greeted by a semi-hardshell black zippered case with blue trim. Interestingly, it can stand upright thanks to four plastic feet, and the top section is conveniently molded into the shape of a handle. Unzipping the case gave us access to the real star of the show, the headphones and their unpleasantly odorous materials. Thankfully, a few days of use quelled the odd stench. Nestled in between the ‘phones, you’ll find a wireless 2.4GHz Kleer 3.5mm audio dongle, along with a USB wall adapter for charging. On the opposite side of the case there’s a mesh pocket, which holds a micro-fiber cloth, a blue 3.5mm audio cable with a one-button inline remote / mic, USB-to-mini-USB cable, an airliner adapter and some product booklets.
The build quality is much like what we’ve come to expect from Samsung’s mobile phones: cheap-feeling plastic that’s actually rather durable.
The basic design elements of the SYNCs unsurprisingly nod to other established brands on the market. Remove the buttons and chromed plastic trim, and you have a near replica of the Beats Studios. Then there’s the blue-backlit “S” on each earcup that’s similar to Signeo’s Soul by Ludacris cans. That said, the folks over at SMS Audio have crafted a robust offering with some notably differentiating design choices. While the plastic doesn’t look or feel very high-end, it’s ridiculously flexible, which bodes well for their durability over time. Absent are any folding hinges, a design choice that SMS claims to offer more rigidity (albeit at the expense of portability). We bent and twisted the headphones many ways and were left with nary a sign of any stress. The headrail adjusters also click smoothly along their tracks and stayed locked in position while we were out and about. Overall, the build quality is much like what we’ve come to expect from Samsung’s mobile phones: cheap-feeling plastic that’s actually rather durable.
Speaking of the trim and finish, you’ll have a choice between the white seen here or black, both featuring light blue and chrome trimmings. Although we normally love gizmos that get the unicorn color treatment, our review sample’s ear cushions had blue stains from the carry case and quickly began collecting grime after only a few weeks of use. If you’re the type who obsesses over keeping your gadgets pristine, we’d advise picking it up in black to save yourself the headache.
Let’s move on to specifics. On the left earcup’s side, you’ll find a power button and another for bass boost / SYNCing (more on that later), while its underside houses a 3.5mm cable input and micro-USB port for charging. Along the right, there’s a cluster of playback controls: advance, rewind and volume. Each button is crowned with raised markings that match up with these symbols (say, volume up), making them easy to find just by feeling around. The buttons make a satisfying click, too, though there’s no audio feedback confirming you’ve just adjusted a setting. We should also point out that all of the controls won’t work out of the box (details later).
The included cable plugs snugly into the headphones and its right-angle jack on the opposite end works well if you plan on keeping your PMP in your pocket. We’re happy to report that cable noise is pretty minimal, and that the single control-button / mic work across a range of Android and iOS devices. Aside from the blue color, though, it’s essentially standard fare and we would have liked for another cable or two to be included at this price — just as you’ll find with almost any pair of headphones like this. By the way, if you’re hoping for a remote with volume controls, like Control-Talk for iOS devices, nothing of the sort is currently available.
Of course, the headphones are wireless, so let’s discuss the dongle for a moment. Starting with build quality, the consistency of the materials is more of the same; however, it ends up seeming flimsier once you notice the wiggly connection at the audio jack. Other than this minor niggle, we didn’t run into any actual problems with its materials. On its top is a power slider, along a with a micro-USB port for charging. Using its 2.4GHz wireless signal, the dongle can work up to 50 feet from the headphones, but in practice we rarely made it past 20 or so before our audio would begin to cut out. Oddly enough, the dongle only enables independent volume control with the headphones, meaning those forward and rewind buttons will remain useless. You will have some options to enable these with add-ons, which we’ll detail further below. On a more positive note, you can connect up to four of the headphones to one wireless dongle. We’re not exactly sure of the appeal for this beyond speakers, but if your buddies happen to own their own pair you could have an odd sort of listening party, we guess.
Notably, pairing the headphones and transmitter is very simple, as their very name would suggest. After holding down the SYNC button on the dongle for three seconds, you’ll do the same for the headphones. While in progress, the LEDs blink in rapidly, eventually matching up at slower pace to let you know that everything got… synced. SMS notes the process takes about 20 seconds, which sounds about right, by our clock. If you’re worried about disturbing others with those flashing lights, the blinkers turn off if you hold the rewind button down for three seconds. Take note, though: as far as we’ve surmised, the dongle’s blinker will remain on unless powered down. Sigh.
Pairing the headphones and transmitter is very simple, as their very name would suggest.
The headphones will work passively with the included cable, but as a fail-safe to keep the batteries from draining by accident, they’ll power off if no sound gets transferred for about a minute. Sadly, there’s no way to bypass this feature, which turned out to be a nuisance since we constantly needed to re-pair the devices while using the headphones out and about throughout the day. Speaking of battery life, we were able to get about 16 and a half hours of continuous use (SMS rates them for 17) but annoyingly, the dongle only lasts a bit more than half of that. Frustratingly enough, although SMS had the foresight to include a USB wall charger, it has just a single input. This means you’ll have to charge one unit at a time unless you want to hook one into, say, your computer. So, you might wonder, why not just opt for Bluetooth, sparing the need for a dongle? One of the major selling points on these cans is Kleer — this wireless technology offers 16-bit CD-quality lossless audio. Despite the claimed high-resolution, these are not aimed at audiophiles, per se, as the headphones expectedly feature a pre-tuned EQ. (We’ll save the details for the sound section later on.)
When it comes to fit, the SYNCs perform good in the comfort department. The earcups do have an ample amount of padding, but we would’ve appreciated a secondary set of cloth pads to avoid swampy ears on hotter days. Sadly, the drivers aren’t set very deep, which causes the headphones to fit a bit like supra-aurals despite the over-ear design. Similar to the Klipsch Mode M40s, this means a hard driver plate may rest against your ears, negating the affects the memory-foam padding — we certainly experienced some mild cartilage cramping. Still, the headphones are very lightweight, with a loose fit that’s just snug enough for them to stay on your head without any serious clamping. Although the cans will remain on your head, that doesn’t mean they’ll stay in place. The headband is slippery, causing the headphones to slide forward whenever you’re walking about. These stand as small quibbles on their own, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that many headphones costing far less come out ahead in many of these real-world tests.
Alright, let’s get to the key part of any headphone review: audio quality. To begin, it’s worth noting that while the headphones are loosely marketed as noise-cancelling, they are actually of the passive noise-isolating variety — if that. The headphones do an abysmal job of blocking out external sound, and in some cases the world felt louder with them on, as if we were in a tunnel. It’s disappointing given how large the headphones are, but we imagine the comfortably care-free fit isn’t exactly conducive to a pristine listening experience.
The headphones do an abysmal job of blocking out external noise, and in some cases the world sounded louder with them on.
As long as we were in a quiet environment, we generally liked the headphones’ voicing, albeit with some caveats. As you’d expect, they’re bass-pushers first and foremost, but they’re fairly big sounding closed-back cans compared to other high-end options we’ve tested. We found ourselves engulfed by the spacious soundstage and clarity that the 50mm drivers provided. It’s not all good, though. We wouldn’t say the mids and highs are tinny, but without EQ guitars always ended up lacking thickness. It becomes especially noticeable once a full band kicks in, as very often the guitars end up fighting with the cymbals for sonic real estate. The lower end is exceptionally smooth, but we did perceive a lack of presence.
For example, with Jimmy Eat World, the bass guitar loses some of its usual top-end bite, and the initial whack of a bass drum winds up buried under its thump. On a related note, you’ll be able use a bass booster, dubbed Thumpp, whenever you use the cans wirelessly. The processing gets done using Kleer’s tech, which is a partial shame since cord-lovers are left out of the fun. Sadly, bass heads’ might want to sit down for this next note — the bass boost consistently did more harm than good, usually causing some mild, but audible, distortion. Despite the headphones’ inherent bass kick, that lacking presence meant that, with genre’s like dubstep and hip hop, the low-end was more audible, albeit compressed. When it comes running these wireless, nothing sounded drastically different our ears, which is a good thing considering its supposed to supply lossless quality. Overall, the headphones sound pretty good, but they’ll likely seem a bit airy sounding. That said, when you then realize you paid $400 for the headphones, they’re considerably less impressive — especially up against the thickly voiced M40s. On a positive note, the cable’s inline microphone faithfully carried our voice during phone calls without any complaints from those on the other line.
As we mentioned earlier, all of the controls on the SYNCs don’t work out of the box with any device. While there isn’t a magic accessory to quell this curious design choice, SMS would be happy to offer you one of two more dongles for an extra fee. Computer users will benefit from SMS’ Kleer USB dongle, which, unlike the audio jack-purposed one included, allows all of the headphones’ controls to work. While we’re glad the option is there, the dongle is huge compared to the average flash drive and it costs a whopping $80 dollars.
According to the included manual, a 30-pin iDevice version of the headphone jack dongle is also on the way. There’s no specific word on a price or release date, but it’ll likely set you back another 50 dollars or so. Of course, this dongle would enable the playback controls, which remain functionless otherwise.
When it comes down to it, SMS Audio’s SYNC by 50 wireless headphones are simply too expensive for what you get. Sure, they’re stylish with a decent fit and good sound, but the experience is justmessy. The 16-bit lossless audio via Kleer wireless is an intriguing prospect, but fussing with dongles is always a hard pill to swallow. Furthermore, the whole implementation feels half-baked once you factor in the mixed compatibility between features. Thumpp bass boost will only work with the dongles due to the sound processing. You only have the option for a microphone when using a cable. The one dongle that does makes all of the headphones’ on-board features work isn’t included in this already exceptionally expensive package. The list goes on, but you’ve likely gotten the gist by now. All that said, we’re always suckers for gadgets stuffed with bells and whistles, so here’s to a more seamless experience — and some more reasonable pricing — in version 2.0. That is, if there ever is a second generation.