I`ve always been a bit of a Klipsch fan. In fact the s4`s on account of Cnet`s glowering reviews, became my first proper earphone. I remember listening to a demo set for the first time, it was that mind blowing moment for me where I realized just how much difference audio gear actually makes and such a huge step up from the stock earbuds that I`d been using at the time. Whilst I didn`t possess the audio vocabulary to describe the sound or the experience to judge it`s characteristics, I still found myself enjoying my music so much more. These earphones drove me to buy the higher model x10`s which I still own and enjoy and then a set of Phonak PFE232`s all that way to the brilliant Sennheiser ie800`s that I`ve been using for the past three years.
About Me – Some background, Gear of choice, Preferences and Biases
I generally prefer a slight v-shape to my sound, but still closer to neutral. I like a lot of detail and clarity, but can appreciate a smooth, laid back sound such as that on the X10`s. I prefer a more neutral midrange within a relatively tight tolerance, but I`m probably more forgiving of brightness over darkness. I`m not particularly treble sensitive and can tolerate large amounts without fatigue, though too much ruins the enjoyment. If I use a different eartip/pad/cover during the review I will note that and describe the sound changes.
The packaging is typical of early 2000`s Klipsch models; A small, thin cardboard box with a clear window displaying the earphones. It`s similar to the x10`s, but less luxurious. One side is perforated for easy un-packaging but it also lets you know if the earphones have been tampered with as it`s not possible to reseal.
The earphones are coiled on a plastic tray that also contains a fabric pouch for the remote “i” models or a much more robust metal tin for standard models. Some models also have a zipper style fabric case but all function well except the pouch which doesn`t provide an awful lot of protection. The earphones also come with a shirt clip and 3 pairs of Klipsch`s excellent oval tips (two medium pre-installed). For their $170 AUD RRP, this is not nearly adequate, but at their current $40-50 price the amount and quality of the accessories is fine.
Utilizing the typical cable down earphone fitment, the s4`s are very easy to use and quite comfortable. The housing is well styled with a premium silver and gloss black finish. They are slightly angled making differentiating between sides easy but they also have markings on the earpieces.
The nozzles are quite long, but the tips have especially short stems so fitment depth is limited. As a result of the relatively shallow-medium depth fitment, I use the largest tip size even though I use medium on pretty much any other earphone. For people with especially large ears this may be a problem.
I did notice that the housings stick out quite a bit from the ear making wind noise quite prevalent, you also won`t be able to wear them whilst sleeping. The earphones are, however, light weight and their long soundtubes mean that the sharply styled housings rarely contact the ear for optimal ergonomics. If they do contact the ear, the edges on the housings can cause discomfort which is why a larger than usual tips size is recommended. Speaking of which, the Klipsch oval tips produce a strong seal and passive isolation is very good for a regular earphone, in between a normal consumer earphone such as the cx300`s and a fully sealed over ear iem such as Shures or Westones. I believe that there are some small vents on the housings as foam tips do not produce much stronger isolation, but I can not see any clear features.
Despite the strong seal the earphones are not completely stable in the ear for prolonged listening and will need adjustment after some time. This is because Klipsch have employed a similar tactic as the x10`s to reduce microphonics; Klipsch utilize the shallow fitment to pull the cable further from the face and reduce cable contact, they don`t have as strong a seal and the fitment isn`t nearly as deep as that on the x10`s however, leading to instability after some time. Still, the strong seal means that they will stay put fine when sitting and even walking, but running is off the table.
The cable is similar to the x10`s in that it is very soft and supple with a great texture that resists snagging and that cheap tacky feel. It is similarly thin yet the housings on the s4`s are noticeably bigger which can produce stress when untangling. They are not fabric reinforced and the cables are quite prone to tangling, but they are especially easy to untangle when this happens. They are decently relieved at the earpiece and remote, but the jack is inadequate and a common point of failure.
Hopefully Klipsch will switch to a right angle jack in the their future lower end models as even the S4 II model uses a straight jack. The “i” model has a remote at the y-split as opposed to a molded case that is functional and very easy to use.
The buttons are well spaced and although they are all shaped exactly the same, they are easy to identify. There is a small mic opening on the back, it works well, but it is a little low (position can be blocked easily) for super clear audio. The remote is optimized for IOS though the multi-function button works on android devices. The earphones are decently microphonic but not distractingly so, they are actually quite good for a cable down earphone. The included chin slider helps with this if you don`t have a shirt clip on hand.
The s4`s have a clearly v-shaped signature that is quite raw, trading smoothness for detail. They have great end to end extension for a consumer earphone, and the sound is above average overall. The sound quality is at the level where you won`t feel like you`re missing out on parts of the audio spectrum, it doesn`t have effortless detail or immense clarity, nor is it even remotely refined, but the earphones do retrieve plenty of information. They have an emphasis on mid-bass and sub-bass is also moderately boosted, they are in essence, a less refined x10. Overall the midrange sounds quite scooped, the lower-mids have good body but they get a bit peaky and female vocals can sound too thick for my liking. Treble is decently extended and detailed but it is also thin, very grainy and can be fatiguing. There is not too much soundstage and what is there is mainly focused upon width whilst depth is below average. Despite this, imaging is surprisingly good. The sound is warm and still more balanced than regular consumer earphones. They have an extra layer of detail and intricacy that puts them above low end Sennheisers and far above Skull Candy and Sol Republic models.
A big plus for the s4 is that they are very easy to drive and will reach very high levels from any decent smartphone. They aren`t sensitive to output impedance and don`t require amping at all. They sound fine from even my iPod Nano 7g and 3rd gen Shuffle. They don`t pick up hiss too easily, but there is always an underlying hiss on every source I have, even my dead silent Fiio Q1.
The bass has above average extension, sub-bass rolls off and isn`t too boosted, but bass comes on strongly after that producing great rumble and slam. Mid-bass is boosted to near bass-head levels with great body. It isn`t super fast nor punchy, and doesn`t resolve high amounts of detail, though it is decently textured. The bass is flabby and full, but not overdone for what it is, the midrange is still decently clear on account of a dip in the upper-bass which is only moderately elevated. The bass is much more neutral than the Sol Republic Jax and also of greater quality. Compared to the Xiaomi Piston 3`s, the s4 has similar sub-bass and much stronger mid-bass combined with slightly better extension. The Piston`s are a bit tighter and more balanced but still quite bassy. The s4`s would benefit from less mid-bass, but the quality is more than sufficient for most pop and hip-hop tracks. You do get the blurring of fast/complex bass-lines, and the Piston`s fare much better here, but the extra rumble and slam offered by the s4`s can be attractive.
The mids are tastefully warm and sound great for a consumer earphone. Over sculpting in the lower-mids produces a veiled upper-midrange, limiting clarity.In comparison to the more balanced Pistons, the s4`s sound thicker and more recessed. The s4`s have especially good detail retrieval in their price class and have a more raw sounding midrange than the overly veiled and cloudy mids of other consumer buds like the SR Jax. They retrieve more details than even the Piston 3`s but the thickness of the sound might disturb some. The added warmth sounds great with pop but the upper midrange limits versatility. For example rock music can sound overbearing whilst jazz is lacking refinement with too much sibilance. The midrange is recessed but both male and female vocals remain perfectly distinguishable and the s4`s powerful sound is great for films. Overall, the mids are coherent but often get overwhelmed by the bass and even treble at times, male vocals sound good but female vocals are missing crispness and sound truncated. The higher model x10`s are much smoother and refined in the midrange and female vocals are much better whilst retaining the warmth and richness of the s4`s.
The treble on the s4`s is quite extended and excited. It`s not airy, the Carbo Tenores are much better in the treble, but the s4 carries similar amounts of detail, it is just lacking smoothness. The treble is generally grainy and boosted in quantity. It is unrefined like the upper mids and a bit thin for me. Texturing is off and the treble produces sibilance in many tracks. They can be harsh at times but are a big step up from most consumer buds which have either no treble response at all, or one that is very rolled off, at least the s4`s portray this spectrum with some faithfulness.
In the consumer space I would say that it`s remarkable what you get for $50 USD with the s4`s. But on the internet you get an awful lot for that money or in the Piston`s case, a third of that. When the s4`s were released in 2009 they were a great choice, but in 2016 they are certainly no longer the best one you can make. The aforementioned Xiaomi Piston 3`s for example produce almost the same level of performance at an astounding $15-20 USD whilst the Zero Audio Carbo Tenore`s are quite a bit better at around the same $30-40 USD price. What the Klipsch provide in return for that extra money is better packaging, isolation and ergonomics although the build is not particularly standout, even in this price range. If you are particularly adverse to shopping online and prefer the safety of a local retailer, then you could do a lot worse than the Klipsch s4`s, they are a great place to start and fakes are very abundant online.
Accessories – 6/10 for fabric pouch, 8/10 with the tin, The s4`s come with great silicone tips but Klipsch would be wise to include dual flanges for more stability. The fabric pouch provides minimal protection whilst the tin is very good, I`m not sure why there is so much variation.
Design – 7/10, The s4`s are attractive and premium looking, but quite poorly built. The cable is far too thin and lack adequate reinforcement. The straight jack is not well relieved and the housings are sharp. They are still very comfortable, but the right tip size is essential. The fit is plenty stable during normal use and microphonics are good for a cable down earphone. Isolation is also good and the s4`s work well when travelling.
Bass – 6/10, Powerful and full, the bass is of above average quality but is too much quantity wise. Warms and can overwhelm the mids. Great impact and slam are well suited to some music and some listeners. They are more balanced than consumer earphones.
Mids – 5.25/10, Quite detailed but lacking refinement. Full but upper mids are veiled and truncated. Deficient in smoothness and clarity but a step up from most earphones at this price. The Xiaomi Piston 3`s provide a more balanced listen for quite a bit less.
Treble – 5.25/10, Decently extended but too thin and harsh.
Soundstage, Imaging and Separation – 5/10, Not too much soundstage. Decent width but limited depth. Imaging is quite good and seperation is above average. They sound congested at times but soundstage is also a notch above the competition.
Overall – 7/10, You`re probably thinking that this end score is quite high for an earphone with no standout scores. The simple charm of the s4`s is that the isolation and fit, even purely due to the Klipsch oval gel tips, is so much better than all other cheap iems that it becomes hard to use other brands. Combine that with a sound that is a step above the consumer competition, and close to the more audiophile conscious brands out there, and the s4 is a solid choice for beginners. I would personally recommend spending $40 more for the more comfortable, better built and much better sounding x10`s, but the shallow sealing, V-shaped s4`s are probably more orthodox for the average listener. The s4`s are special because they are so accessible, mixing a very typical consumer sound with just a touch of refinement that makes one wonder what more is to come. They are a great gateway into the hobby and not a bad earphone to keep around for media.