IMG_20160408_140200If you listen to audiobooks through earbuds, what would a good pair sound like for you? Here’s what they sound like for me.

About a week ago, another company reached out to me with an offer of a product for review. In this case, it was ZealSound, which makes a pair of genuine-wood earbuds that retail for about $22 on Amazon. I was very curious whether this product would, indeed, be All That, so I told them to send away.

I got the earbuds a couple of days ago and have been trying them out ever since. All in all, I’m pretty pleased with what I hear.

For the last couple of years, I haven’t used much in the way of cabled earbuds. I had been using various Skullcandy sets that I found on sale, and found them reasonably good as far as they went, but I was really tired of the way they kept getting caught on things and jerked out of my ear (and, if it happened while I was in motion on my bike, sometimes caught in the wheels and mangled in a split second), or tangled up to the point where it seemed like I spent more time unsnarling them than listening to them. Or they’d develop a short in the cable and have to be replaced at the most inconvenient time. I upgraded to Plantronics Backbeat Go 2 Bluetooth earbuds and was reasonably happy with them.

But listening to the ZealSound HDE-300s may make me rethink my position on that.

By and large, earbuds are commodity devices. Any one of them in the $20 to $30 range is generally about as good as any other. So, I can’t say that these Zealsounds are necessarily the best earbuds in their price range. But I can say that you’re definitely getting a good deal for the money.

The ‘buds come packaged in a cardboard box, with the usual two extra sets of rubber ear tips in various sizes. There’s also a lavaliere-style clip that you can slide onto the cable to keep it secured against your shirt. The earbuds have an in-line microphone on the left bud, with a play/pause/answer call button on its housing. so they’ll easily work with a smartphone or tablet. The 1/8” jack is gold-plated for maximum conductivity. The cables are wrapped in a woven-thread binding that gives it some extra sturdiness and also makes it less prone to snarling. It also comes with a canvas drawstring pouch for storage.

The housings of each earbud are, in fact, actual wood. You can see the grain and even feel it if you draw your fingernail across. The advertising copy on the back of the box makes a big deal out of this, in fact. “The wooden headphone housings not only add a warm, natural resonance to the sound, but delivers a live concert-like effect that can be transported by the music.”

I’m a little skeptical of that claim—it seems to me like the earbuds ought to be too small for a natural wood chamber of that size to have that much of an effect. Guitars and violins, which use wooden resonance chambers, are a lot bigger, after all. But for all of that, I will say the headphones do sound remarkably good for earbuds in that price range.

It’s a little hard to be sure it’s not at least partly psychological, given that it’s not really possible to do a “blind” comparison, but I think the ZealSound earbuds sound better than my Plantronics Bluetooth earbuds that cost four times as much when I bought them. (Only twice as much now.) I can’t say whether that’s due to the wood or having a physical cable instead of radio waves, but it seems to me I can make out more details in music with these. I get fuller, richer sound from games, TV shows, podcasts, and certainly from audiobooks—and I certainly don’t get stutter or drop-out the way I sometimes do when I’m on the go with my Plantronics, nor do they run out of juice when I’m partway through my day.

The microphone seems to work well, too. I tried it with a voice recorder and got a good quality recording, and I’ve used it in phone conversations and sounded just fine to the people on the other end.

In any event, I haven’t tried them out directly against other equivalent earbuds in that price range. It’s possible that Skullcandy or whatever other brand might sound just as good for the same money. And honestly, you don’t really need them if all you’re listening to is audiobooks—you could get by with the $3 pair you find at your local Family Dollar for that.

But if you like decent quality sound for music as well as spoken words, $22 isn’t a bad price for a decent pair of headphones. I didn’t pay anything for these, of course, but I could readily see buying another pair with my own money if something happens to this one. The only real drawback I noticed is that it doesn’t have a volume control on the microphone housing, too—but I can use the controls on my phone or my Pebble if I have to.

earEven apart from the decent sound, the earbuds are quite stylish-looking. The finished wood of the housings is visible in your ear when you’re listening, and would go well with a steampunk outfit if you were cosplaying at a convention. Also, it seems to me that anyone who enjoys the smell of a good analog book or the look and feel of a leather cover might also like listening to an audiobook via actual wooden artifacts in their ears for similar reasons.

Incidentally, if you want to use a smartphone headset like this with your desktop or laptop computer, this adapter cable will split the single plug into dual plugs for your computer’s separate headphone and mic jacks.


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