Thinksound ts02 in-ear headphones

Thinksound ts02 in Black Chocolate finish.

I haven’t had much luck with in-ear headphones.

Kelli’s Etymotic ER-6i earphones ($99) offered a well-balanced sound, with satisfying bass and natural highs, but I found them extremely uncomfortable and I had a difficult time getting them to fit properly in my ear canals. I liked Shure’s SE210 ($149.99) and SE115 ($139.99), but they felt large and heavy in my ears, and friends often balked at their prices. Don’t get me started about the V-MODA Remix Metal in-ears ($99.99); their highs were so pronounced and glaring and bass so completely absent, I wanted to run away from my music—never a good sign. (But I’ll take the blame here: I should’ve known what to expect from an earphone with the word “Metal” in its name. I have since steered clear of models designed to look like bullets, arrows, and jet engines or whose product literature uses the words “crisp,” “sharp,” or “edgy.”)

The Klipsch S4i earphones ($99) are much more comfortable and unobtrusive than other models I’ve tried, but their sound had more in common with the V-MODA’s than the Etymotic’s—too much treble, not enough bass for my taste. Same goes for the Phiaton PS 200 ($249). I have auditioned in-ears that were pleasing, both sonically and ergonomically—models from Ultimate Ears, JH Audio, and Shure come to mind—but they were all well over $200, which is more than I want to spend on an in-ear headphone.

Not that any of this really mattered much: I’m not a big fan of portable audio. I’d rather listen to the sounds of the world around me than fill my head with tunes coming from an iPod. Plus, the only time I can get any reading done is during my morning and evening commutes, and I’m not the type of person who can actively read and listen to music at the same time.

So, I was more than a bit wary when Thinksound’s Aaron Fournier contacted me. First of all, I had never heard of the company: New headphone brands are popping up almost as fast as new bands, and it’s near impossible to keep up with them all. Second, well, I haven’t had much luck with in-ear headphones.

After taking a look at Thinksound’s offerings, I suggested Fournier send a sample of the company’s most expensive model, the $99 Rain. Fournier had something different in mind, however, instead suggesting that I listen to the company’s less expensive ts02, “a much more efficient and comfortable headphone,” he said.

That was on Wednesday, March 2. On Monday, March 7, I had received the ts02, and I was immediately impressed by their eco-friendly packaging and design. Later that night, after a couple of hours of comparing the ts02 to the Klipsch S4i, I was beginning to wonder if my luck had changed.

With the Thinksound ts02 ($79.99), Aaron Fournier wanted to create a headphone that everyone could enjoy—a lofty, perhaps even unrealistic, ambition. In fact, of all the headphones he’s designed, he admits that the ts02 is his favorite. In the world of headphones, it seems that companies craft product lines with specific models for specific consumers: “Accuracy” for the audiophiles, bass boost for the music lovers, treble boost for crazy people. I, however, tend to appreciate a company whose designs share a family resemblance from the top to the bottom of a line, so I asked Fournier whether the Thinksound products share a similar sonic signature.

“Not all are the same,” he said. “We will continue to improve the sound with every model that comes out. We will even work on in-ear monitors in the future. Making monitors vs regular canal phones is a completely different market.”

Thinksound ts02 in Silver Cherry.

Because I also like to think that an audio engineer builds a bit of his own personality into each of his products, I wondered if Fournier had a background in music. Turns out that he plays both bass and guitar, and enjoys a wide variety of music, from Johnny Cash and Steve Earle to Lamb of God. Fournier also holds a degree in audio engineering. While he utilizes both measurements and listening impressions when designing his headphones, Fournier prefers to listen first and measure as a means of quality control. He says: “Voicing loudspeakers and earphones is similar and is becoming a lost art. I hope to bring some of it back. Thinksound will have a more personal and intimate sound that audiophiles will come to appreciate.”

About that sound: I found it immediately engaging, with fine resolution of detail, easy highs, clear mids, and a bold, robust bass. Happily, this was not the bloated, overripe bass I heard with the Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, but a much better controlled and more musical variety. I don’t consider myself a “bass freak” or anything like that—I think subwoofers are a pain and I don’t need the last few hertz of low-bass extension in order to get down—but the ts02’s round, weighty bass kept me listening to track after track. I started with “Southern Point” from Grizzly Bear’s outstanding Veckatimest. The song opens with swiftly moving acoustic guitars and gentle touches on ride cymbal, reminiscent of work from Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, and these bits were conveyed by the Thinksound ts02 with great tonal color and fine momentum. Only moments in, and I had already gained a sense of the ts02’s way with lower frequencies—just before the vocals enter, we hear two bass kicks, and, through the ts02, they were thunderous and impressive—round and taut and authoritative. These beats were coming from a drummer looking to make a statement. The song goes through several movements of rising and falling intensity, and the ts02s delivered each in a way that was believable and compelling. Midway through the song, we’re treated to a wave of bells and whistles that seem to race in and out of the picture, and these were conveyed with fine speed, air, and resolution, illuminating detail without being overly bright, gritty, or otherwise offensive.

Would I call the Thinksound ts02 “accurate”? Eh, probably not—there is a definite bass boost, which, I suppose, works against accuracy—but what is accurate? The ts02 also boosts the level of listening pleasure and, therefore, makes me want to listen to more music—an unambiguously good thing.

I made comparisons with the Klipsch S4i, but I kept returning to the Thinksounds. Through the Klipsch S4i, there was too much high-frequency energy, too much piercing treble, and not enough smoothness and warmth. The Thinksounds, I think, were also more forgiving of poorly recorded material and low-quality MP3s. I have a lot of low-quality MP3s in my iPod because of all those free downloads I get with my new vinyl purchases, and I like being able to listen to that music even when I’m not at home. So, it’s important to me that even these low-quality MP3s be enjoyable. While WAV files tended to sound more relaxed and natural than their lower bit rate counterparts, listening to 256kbps MP3s of Portishead’s Third through the Klipsch S4i was a struggle—too much sizzle, grain, and glare. The same files through the Thinksound ts02 were far more enjoyable, with great momentum, top-to-bottom balance, and enough detail to be consistently impressive. One morning, after more than a week of wearing the Thinksound ts02 on my way to work, I thought I’d switch to the Klipsch S4i. Before leaving the apartment, I reached for the Klipsches, made sure I had a proper fit, scrolled to the XX, and clicked Play. I didn’t make it out the door before having to stop the music and switch back to the Thinksounds. Why torture myself? I listened long enough to report that the Klipsch headphones were not friendly to 160kbps MP3s, accentuating the gritty brightness of hand claps and lacking the propulsive drive of the Thinksounds. I returned to the ts02 and headed to the train station, enjoying the mellow sunshine, allowing the music to be the soundtrack to my morning, reveling in the sounds of one of today’s hottest indie-pop bands, feeling like I was in some sort of hipster car commercial. Woo-hoo.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve spent many morning commutes listening to Helado Negro’s new Canta Lechuza, an album full of hazy, hot, and humid tunes, dense with panning effects and wet with dubbed-out beats and warbles. Through the Thinksound ts02, the experience was nearly mind-altering. One morning, I traveled from downtown Jersey City to the Stereophile office at 261 Madison Avenue, then to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and back to Stereophile, enjoying every moment of the circuitous commute because the Thinksound ts02 was so purely pleasurable. And, remember: I don’t even like in-ear headphones; I don’t like listening to music while commuting. The Thinksound headphones have totally confounded me, have altered my commuting habits, and have completely conspired against my efforts to get any reading done. (I’ve been stuck on page 29 of Tom McCarthy’s beautifully detailed C for two weeks because, for the first time in my life, I actually want to listen to my iPod.)

The Thinksounds are also comfortable. While they feel a bit larger in my ears than the Klipsch S4i, the Thinksound’s ear pieces are soft and conform nicely to the shape of my ear canals—I’ve never had trouble getting a good fit. Outer sounds are blocked fairly well—I can just barely hear the automated train signals and announcements, and that’s only during the quietest passages of music. The Thinksound’s PVC-free cable is said to be tangle-resistant, but I found it was actually more tangle-prone than other models I’ve used, turning into a sort of overdone angel-hair pasta at times—laughable to the point of becoming endearing. Fortunately, I’ve always been good at untangling things.

And that’s about it. I’ve put the Thinksound ts02 through heavy use for more than two weeks, all the while waiting for something to go wrong. But things have only gotten better: I’ve learned to enjoy music in a new way. While the ts02 may not be the most accurate in-ear headphone, it is easy to love and keeps me listening to my music—a benefit that cannot be overstated. It’s impossible to know whether Aaron Fournier has achieved his goal of creating a headphone that everyone can enjoy, but the ts02 is certainly among the most enjoyable in-ear models I’ve heard, and at a price that just about everyone can afford. In fact, at just $79.99, the ts02 strikes me as a true hi-fi bargain. I’m keeping the review sample and buying a few more sets for friends.

Drtrey3's picture

in ear phone that I LOVE! They are a little heavy in the bottom, so I only listen to them off an iPod, but they are very low profile and sit very close to my ear so I can wear them at night if I am having trouble getting to sleep.

They were about $130, I will try to remember to get the model number for you, but they make me very happy!


300Binary's picture

Got them on sale for $20. I like my old outside the head system more, but, these do deliver the tunes, if not quite enhanced by being injected directly into truncated ear canals. All that is gold is metal. 11mm full range speakers, indeed! I, too, prefer the largest silicon gel ear cavity docking units. YMMV.

deckeda's picture

... the ts02 or the "more accurate, audiophile" Rains would be with lossless files. But I understand that for portable use the more efficient ts02 makes sense.

LPs aren't the most convenient medium, and yet here we are. I see an "Entry Level" ADC in your future.