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The workout headphone market consists almost entirely of in-ear models, but Soul Electronics bucks the trend with its on-ear Transform sport headphones ($99). Designed for athletic types, the Transform headphones claim to be lightweight, breathable and washable as well as durable, but are they really suited for active duty?
The Transform headphones are full-size and come with soft earpads covered in nylon mesh. The earpads sit on flat plastic rings that unclip from the earcups; once removed, you can take the earpads off the rings and wash them after a sweaty workout. The headband adjusts for different head sizes, but it doesn’t fold up for storage. Instead of padding underneath the headband, there’s a vented polyurethane strip that keeps the hard plastic from touching your head.
The headphones are entirely plastic, except for the screws, headband strip and earpads. They are therefore lightweight (about 5.3 ounces) compared with on-ear models, such as the Skullcandy Navigator (7 ounces), though they’re still heavier than Bose’s featherweight but pricey SoundTrue cans (4.9 ounces). The Transform’s all-plastic construction makes the headphones feel a bit flimsy.
The cabling is flat and has an inline mic/controller that’s compatible with any smartphone, though some functions (track skip and volume) work only with iOS devices. The controller sits a couple inches below your jaw on the right side, and a slider and shirt clip are included to help you manage the cables and keep them from flapping around while you exercise.
Our review unit came in two-tone grey with chartreuse earpads and cables — good for visibility on the road — but they’re also available in dark grey with blue accents. The package includes a soft drawstring carrying pouch.
Comfort and Operation
Although Soul Electronics calls the Transform headphones an “on-ear” product, they could be considered circumaural (or “over-the-ear”), as they fit completely around our average-size ears with just a little bit of shifting. They feel very light and stay on surprisingly well for full-size cans, though they don’t exactly “disappear” while you’re working out. We also enjoyed the Transform’s ability to block out noise fairly well without active noise-cancellation circuitry.
After a half hour on an elliptical machine, we found ourselves wishing for our earbuds as we felt the heat building up inside our ears. Still, we powered through another 15 minutes without too much discomfort. If you exercise in cooler temperatures though, the Transform’s ear protection could be a plus.
The earpads are comfy enough and soak up moisture, effectively carrying it away from your ears, and we easily took them off and rinsed them in the sink after our workout.
The inline controller works well and is responsive. We had no trouble skipping tracks on our iPhone 4S with two (forward) or three (backward) clicks of the center button, which also controls Siri (also works with voice commands on Android) and call send/end. The volume buttons work only with iOS, and we found them handy and easy to find by feel on the rubberized surface of the sweat-proof controller.
Overall, the Transform’s clarity isn’t the best for critical listening, but it’s fine for working out. The bass has some nice impact but it lacks definition, especially in the kick drum. The boosted midrange puts the piano up front in the mix, while horns sounded warm but not as breathy as with in-ears like the Soul Flex. In acoustic jazz such as John Coltrane’s “Blue Train,” the bass competes with the soloists, and the cymbals ring loudly but aren’t very crisp.
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On bass-heavy tracks such as Jay-Z’s “Holy Grail,” the low end was almost comically loud and completely overwhelmed the rest of the track, and Justin Timberlake’s voice lacked any luster. Rock tracks such as Metallica’s "Enter Sandman" suffered from a lack of midrange detail in the guitars and weak highs, though the kick drum was punchy and clear. Pink Floyd’s "Comfortably Numb" had clear vocals but was especially susceptible to the lack of highs, taking away from the sense of space in the track.
Callers on both ends sounded fairly clear (given the limitations of a cellular connection), and the inline mic did a decent job of rejecting ambient noise. However, our call partner said she could hear the TV in the background as we were talking.
One of the few on-ear headphones catering to fitness, the $99 Soul Transform headphones are lightweight and have washable earpads. These should be on your short list if you live in a cold climate and exercise outdoors, your gym’s A/C is cranked too high or you simply can’t stand in-ear headphones. However, the overwhelming bass and potential heat issues while exercising keep us from recommending them over less-expensive workout earbuds. You can get significantly better sound for less money if you go with an in-ear set such as the Soul Flex ($69). Overall, though, the comfortable, sweatproof and secure Transform is a solid workout companion.
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Mike Kobrin is a freelance journalist who has written about audio technology for the likes of Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Mens Journal, Rolling Stone, Consumers Digest, DigitalTrends, Wired News, CrunchGear, CNet and PC Magazine, as well as Tom's Guide. He's also a musician, with years of experience playing the trumpet.