If you’ve ever wanted to tweak your headphones’ sound but didn’t want to void the warranty by cracking open that $200-plus accessory, Sleek Audio’s SA6 modular noise-isolating earbuds are worth checking out. The SA6 is the only set of headphones we’ve ever had to open the instruction manual to use, but once you customize them to your personal listening preferences, they’re definitely worth the effort.
These $249 earbuds come with six pairs of interchangeable filters, called ports, that can be used to reduce or increase the treble and bass; just remove the silicone tips, pull the ports out, and replace them with a different set to achieve the desired acoustics. The ports are easy to swap out, but they’re also small and easy to lose. Sleek Audio sells replacement pairs for $12.50.
The cables have an anti-tangle slider and plug into each earbud via small gold-plated jacks, making them a snap to replace if they wear out. This feature also lets you orient the earbuds to wear them with the cables over the tops of your ears or straight down (like normal earbuds); we preferred wearing them over our ears to reduce cable thump while walking. Sleek Audio includes a carrying case, but it’s a bit bulky.
The SA6 required some tweaking for the best results. After turning off our MP3 player’s digital equalizer, we tried every combination of ports and tips, and found that the “plus” modules for both the bass and treble gave us the most pleasing sound, if not the most accurate. The double-flanged silicone eartips blocked out surrounding noise effectively and cleaned up easily with the included tool.
When the bass enters on Bob Marley’s “Exodus,” it’s like a kick to the head, but it doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the music. Les Claypool’s gritty electric bass sound came through clearly on Primus’ “Tommy the Cat,” and the bizarre vocals were right where they should be in the mix.
We could hear every flaw in Wynton Marsalis’ difficult classical trumpet performance of “Moto Perpetuo,” and the backing orchestra had plenty of mud-free presence in the bass. Classic jazz tracks like John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” sounded full and well balanced, with strong bass, though the piano got a little bit buried during the horn solos. Highs didn’t quite have the sizzle of other headphones in this price range, such as the Ultimate Ears super.fi 5 Pro (which you can find for at least $50 less than their original list price of $249).
Finicky listeners unsatisfied with digital equalizers may find the Sleek Audio SA6 refreshing; the two can even be used in tandem for endless tweaking. Given their very good noise isolation, customizable sound, and compact size, these headphones are a solid buy.