Thinksound’s ms01 in-ear monitor

The first model in Thinksound's Monitor Series: the ms01, shown here in Chocolate Gunmetal finish.

I’ve become familiar with all the fashionable brands just by taking notice during my daily commute to and from work: Incase, Eskuche, Urbanista, WeSC…. I want to love headphones like Tyll Hertsens loves headphones. (V-Moda, VSonic, J-Phonic….) Almost everyone wears them, and they’re often extremely cool looking. (AKG, Sennheiser, Sony, Shure….) I can’t help but admire the man or woman I see on the street, in the train, at the café or the bar, wearing the shiny Scullcandies or the colorful UrbanEars or the custom-designed Beats. (Pioneer, Panasonic, Phiaton, Philips…) The moment I put them on, however, I want them off. I can’t get used to their weight on my head, or the way their cables pull at my ears or get stuck on my jacket. In-ear monitors are slightly less problematic—at least they’re small—but I can only stand having them in my ears for so long before I want them, too, out.

Besides, music is everywhere, and I enjoy hearing the sounds around me.

The only time I truly find headphones useful is when I’m aboard an airplane, on my way, usually, to a hi-fi show or similar event—I hate flying more than I hate headphones. While flying, I listen to music to pass the time. Wherever I go, my little blue iPod allows me to carry along a small bit of home. And the only in-ear headphone I’ve really ever enjoyed is Thinksound’s ts02. Compared to others at or around the same price, the ts02 offers a warm, well-balanced, full-bodied sound that allows me to listen for long stretches without becoming annoyed or fatigued by unrealistically sharp, bright highs.

During my recent trip to Seattle for Definitive Audio’s Music Matters 7 event, I decided to compare Thinksound’s ts02 ($79.99) to their ms01 ($99.99), the first model in the company’s new Monitor Series.

The ms01 looks almost identical to the ts02. Both have an attractive wood housing that ends in a metallic aluminum tip—silver or black for the ts02; a more masculine “gunmetal” for the ms01. Both use extremely light and thin, PVC-free cabling, terminated with a 3.5mm gold-plated plug. Though Thinksound refers to this cabling as “tangle-resistant,” I can’t imagine anything more tangle-prone. These cables resist tangles like I resist Natalie and Nicole, pizza, or new LPs—not very well at all. Both models employ passive noise isolation to minimize ambient sound. (I prefer this over active noise cancelling, which requires batteries and too often adds a syrupy midrange coloration to the sound.) Both come with four sizes of silicon eartips, “active lifestyle” ear hooks (unnecessary for my inactive lifestyle), a cord clip, and a cotton carrying pouch. Finally, both use an 8mm drive-unit. The ts02 has a claimed frequency response of 20Hz–20kHz, while the ms01 is rated at 18Hz–20kHz.

I tried the ms01 with Thinksound’s own ear fittings, as well as Comply’s T-400 replacement foam tips ($14.95 for a set of three pair). Comply’s tips are made of a sort of memory foam, and require that you squeeze, insert, and allow the tips to expand in your ear canals, creating a secure, comfortable fit. They work, but I prefer the ease-of-use and feel of Thinksound’s standard fittings. I didn’t notice a significant change in the sound. You and your ears might have a different experience, though. If you’re having trouble getting a good, secure fit with your in-ears, you can try the Comply tips. They’re affordable and come in several fun colors. Just make sure you buy the right tips for your headphones.

The files I listened to were all MP3s—free downloads that came with LP purchases—ranging in quality from 128–320kbps. The first track I played was Gang Gang Dance’s “MindKilla” from the excellent album, Eye Contact. I was immediately struck by the ms01’s brighter overall sound. The increased speed of hi-hats and snares and the enhanced clarity in the vocals created a more forceful, exciting performance.

Shabazz Palaces: Black Up

Since I was on my way to Seattle, I thought I should get into the mood by listening to one of the city’s coolest acts: Shabazz Palaces. Listening to “Youlogy” from the hip-hop duo’s Black Up, I felt that the ms01 was better than the ts02 at making sense of the dense, foggy mix. It was easy to trace vocalist Ishmael Butler back to the jazz roots of Digable Planets. With shades of Greg Smith's awesome Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, in which he explains why he resigned from Goldman Sachs, Butler rhymes:

The nights are getting stronger and the days are getting longer
The buildings getting bigger, outside is getting smaller
The lies are getting truer and the truth is getting bright
Things are looking blacker, but black is looking white
The price is getting higher and the buyers is the flyest
The stars are never bright, the good are getting tired
Yesterday you threw it cuz you gots to have the new shit
The money always fools you, so corny’s getting cooler
Nothing’s gonna stop it if it’s bound to turn a profit
For this amount, I’ll do it; for this, I’ll let you watch it…

I wondered, though, if the ms01’s enhanced transient speed and midrange clarity came at the cost of the ts02’s lovely low-end warmth and impact. To examine this (and also in an unsuccessful attempt to impress the pretty girl sitting to my right), I turned to “Things Fall Apart” from Zomby’s Dedication, which matches fast-paced percussive elements—gunshots, hi-hats, fingersnaps, and snare hits—with plenty of deep drum beats to keep your head bobbing. The gunshot that opens the song had startling force—I almost ducked. In fact, all of the high-frequency stuff was there, but only faster, tighter, more present and extended. However, while the bass kicks sounded tighter and more muscular through the ms01, they didn’t lack the ts02’s impact and fine sense of timing.

Over time, I came to appreciate the ms01’s brighter, more revealing character. While it doesn’t have the same relaxed, ingratiating quality of the ts02, the ms01 is just as well-balanced, never edgy or harsh, and always easy to enjoy. Though I’ll probably always be attracted to the many varieties of headphones available, I know I need only one, and it’ll come from Thinksound. I like the company’s eco-friendly philosophy, I like the products’ attractive design and prices, and I love the products’ sound. I could very happily live with either the ts02 or the more expensive ms01. If I had to choose between the two, I’d go with the ms01 for its balance of detail, clarity, speed, and impact. When it's time to travel to the next hi-fi show, I'll be sure to take the ms01 along for the flight.