If you've seen one pair of celebrity-endorsed headphones, you've seen them all. Or have you? The SMS Audio Sync by 50 headphones are the first to cut the cord and go wireless. Another way the Curtis Jackson-endorsed cans stand out is their use of Kleer's lossless audio technology instead of Bluetooth. But is this enough to justify the steep $399 asking price?
The Sync by 50s headphones are anything but subtle. The over-ear cans are massive, easily eclipsing our head. The exterior band and ear cups are swathed in shiny black plastic surrounded by a thick band of silver plastic. A thin strip of chrome adds a touch of refinement. A leather-wrapped memory foam headrest lines the headband's interior, giving way to a matte gray plastic with more delicate chrome trimmings. The cans are also available in Silver Obsidian and Ghost White.
Blue S insignias adorn the left and right ear cups. The left cup features buttons for power and Bass Boost mode. The Bass Boost button activates THUMPP Enhanced Bass, but holding it for 3 seconds sends the cans into pairing mode. A microUSB port and a 3.5mm headphone jack sit underneath the cup. The right cup holds controls for volume and track progression. In wireless mode, the S logos flash every few seconds, but can be disabled by placing the cans in Airplane mode. Wisely, the buttons are raised, enabling us to navigate the controls by feel alone.
The Memory foam ear cups felt pillowy soft against our head and remained comfortable after several hours of use. The buttons had a strong, springy feel, but we were disappointed to learn that the headphone's track buttons only worked when the cans are attached to a device via USB.
The headphones are packaged with a USB dongle for wireless listening and a blue 53.1-inch cable for traditionalists. About the size of a matchbox, the 1.7 x 0.7 x 0.5-inch dongle features the same Phantom Black plastic as the headphones. A large pairing button with a blue S logo sits prominently in the front of the dongle, while the 3.5mm jack sits along the top. A microUSB slot and an on/off switch are on the bottom.
The headphone's plastic structure is pretty tough. We were able to bend and twist the band with no ill effects. If only the dongle were that sturdy. After a few uses, we noticed that the jack started to wiggle.
Weighing 11 ounces, the Syncs are sightly lighter than the leather-and-metal 11.5-ounceParrot Ziks. Still, we preferred the more elegant look and feel of the Ziks.
Pairing the dongle and headphone was relatively simple. After plugging the dongle into our Samsung Galaxy S III, we held down the pairing button on the dongle for 5 seconds. Next, we held down the Bass Boost button on the headphones. The blue logos began to flash rapidly, and the actual pairing took between 2-3 seconds. From there, we just played our audio tracks as usual.
Kleer vs. Bluetooth
Instead of Bluetooth, Sync by 50 headphones wirelessly stream audio using Kleer technology. In addition to streaming 16-bit, 44.1-KHz audio -- a higher bandwidth than Bluetooth -- a maximum of four Sync users can simultaneously listen to a single audio source.
Thanks to Kleer technology, SMS Audio claims the Syncs have a range of 50 feet. That's 17 feet more than the 33-foot range of most Bluetooth products, including the Ziks. During our testing, we were able to walk 35 feet away from the transmitter before the audio cut out. When we walked back into range, the music began playing after approximately 2 seconds. The Ziks, by comparison, cut out after 27 feet. Kleer can also transmit through walls, but the range decreases significantly. After walking into one of our empty offices and closing the door, the music cut out at 21 feet.
The Sync by 50's are LOUD. The built-in volume adjusters give you additional decibels on top of your player's volume control, and when we cranked both to the max, our ears were ringing after 10 minutes. That being said, we can never foresee a time when a person would ever need to crank both sets of volume controls to maximum. On a side note, our co-workers in the bullpen reported minimal audio bleed.
Once we adjusted the volume to acceptable listening levels, we were awash in bass by way of the custom 40mm drivers. Music lovers who like bombastic lows will have found their match in the Syncs. As we listened to Jay-Z's "Say Hello," we heard crisp cymbals, strong, willful strings matched with a deep throbbing bass. Jay-Z's vocal was clear and prominent on the track, too. On Ram Jam's country rock classic "Black Betty," our ears were bombarded with more clear cymbals, a thumping bass drum and a lively guitar.
When we listened to the same tracks using the Parrot Zik (via Bluetooth), we noticed some of the more subtle nuances of the tracks were lost or compromised. The fluttering guitar in the background on "Say Hello" was buried beneath the bass. On "Black Betty," the guitar sounded slightly muted.
We like the clarity and depth on the Syncs, but there is always a danger of the track being drowned out with bass. The Syncs tended to add bass where none existed, such as on Evanescence's "My Immortal." The Ziks do a better job of delivering balanced audio that can adapt to multiple genres of music. From Kanye West's "Mercy" to Alanis Morrissette's "Unforgiven" to Chopin's "Nocturn No.2 in E flat Major, Op. 9,2," we heard rich, clear audio. Plus, using Parrot's excellent Concert Hall Effect and Equalizer, we could create a sound profile for an optimal listening experience.
When we enabled Bass Boost on the SMS headphones, both tracks were inundated with extra bass. The lows on "Say Hello" sounded somewhat compressed while the rest of the track sounded tinny and distorted. As far as "Black Betty," the extra bass kick was wasted on a track that didn't have much to begin with. The guitar sounded flat and distorted while the cymbals were too brassy. Unfortunately, Bass Boost can only be used wirelessly.
We wish that SMS Audio would create a smartphone app, similar to Parrot's, that would let us adjust sound profiles and equalizer settings.
The Sync by 50 headphones relies on their massive foam ear cups to deliver passive noise canceling. While the cups shut out some noise, they were no match for the honking horns of New York City traffic. By comparison, the Ziks' active noise canceling technology caused the outside world to fade into the background.
Phone calls made using the Syncs were nice and loud, but the lack of active noise canceling let a lot of ambient noise into our conversation. Still, in a quiet office, we preferred them to the Ziks, which delivered muffled, hollow audio on calls in indoor and outdoor settings.
The Syncs have some serious staying power. The cans finally died after 15 hours and 45 minutes of continued use. However, the dongle's battery petered out after 7 hours and 32 minutes, forcing us to stop and recharge it. Both the headphones and the dongle can be recharged via their respective microUSB ports.
By comparison, the Ziks lasted 5:10 with active noise cancellation turned on, and when we switched everything off except noise canceling, we managed a full 8 hours, with 30 percent left on the battery.
The $399 SMS Audio Sync by 50 wireless headphones draws a lot of inspiration from their namesake, 50 Cent. They're big and flashy with a healthy dose of swagger and can put on a show. Beneath the shiny veneer, though, lies a pair of headphones with excellent battery life and an audio profile most hip-hop fans will appreciate. However, for the same price, the Parrot Ziks have an NFC chip, a built-in touch panel, and an app that lets you fine-tune your audio. But for music lovers who want their beats served with a heavy side of bass, the SMS Audio Sync by 50 are a good choice.