In the ongoing quest to find the best set of headphones for your hard earned dollar, I picked up a set of the Hippo VB’s. VB stands for variable bass. There are only a few sites I could find that had any information regarding these headphones at all, but what I read was very promising. So, in an effort to help others out with the search for the holy grail of “affordable” headphones, I went ahead and ordered a set from http://www.unclewilsons.com. (At the time of this writing, it appears that this site is no longer available).
Now, onto the review…First, let me say that I am extremely happy with these headphones, especially for $80. To find out exactly why I like these, read on.
The Hippo VB’s arrived in an attactive box that was packed in very well. Nothing really to note here other than the headphones and included accessories were snug and well protected. In the box you’ll find:
- 3 sets of ear tips: small, medium, large
- 3 sets of variable bass screws
- No marking = most bass – unless you just remove the screw altogether
- 2 dots = middle amount of bass
- 3 dots = least amount of bass
- Carrying pouch
- NO INSTRUCTION MANUAL
I want to provide a quick comment on the instruction manual, or lack thereof. Being that this was my first set of in-ear headphones, I was a little lost when trying to get these things working. I’ll expound on this a bit further down in the review, but, I feel that anytime you make an electronic purchase, there should be at least a minimal set of instructions – this was very disappointing.
Ear tips – the Hippo VB’s were packaged with the standard small, medium, and large silicone tips. I would imagine that most people will find at least one set that will fit properly. A quick note on this – if you’ve never used IEM’s (in ear modules) before, then knowing how to put your headphones in is paramount to getting the sound you desire! This is where an instruction manual would be more than a little helpful – DO NOT just try to cram these things in your ear! Doing so will not only create a horrible, disappointing sound, but you could also do some irreparable damage to your inner ear. See our Guide to In Wearing In Ear Monitors.
Variable bass screws – the included screws are simply screws that have o-ring type attachments that force each set of screws to be installed at varying depths. The bass-heavy screw screws most of the way in, the mid, about half-way, and the weaker bass screw is the furthest out from the driver. When these things say variable bass, they mean it. The bassy screw produces deep, loud, impactful bass. The middle screw produces slightly less overpowering bass but with the improved clarity, impact and presence, especially when the volume is turned up. The bass-light screw really brings things down a notch to where the bass is much more subdued, very little impact, but still very clean. Note you also have the option of removing the bass screws altogether which will basically make you feel like your brain is being rattled, but this is certainly at the expense of pure, clean bass. You will get overwhelming amounts of bass that sounds distorted and sloppy.
Carrying pouch – the carrying pouch that is provided with the Hippo VB’s is of good build quality. It’s small but durable, has a wrist band, and would be great for throwing in your workout bag and taking along with you to keep your headphones from getting damaged while on the go. While it wouldn’t make or break the purchase, it’s always nice to have a little something extra thrown in, so this is a plus.
Comfort – 70 (with included silicon tips)
This is my first pair of in ear headphones and I have to say these took a little getting used to. I’ve had the opportunity to compare these to a set of V Moda Bass IEM’s and the fit is very similar. I couldn’t tell much of a difference between the two. I’ve also been able to compare these to the Klipsch S4’s, and while I’ve found that I’ve adapted to the Hippo’s, I’ve yet to put in a set of in ears that were as comfortable as the Klipschs. So, for comfort, I have a feeling these are close to your standard set of IEM’s where if one set is wearable for you, these will be too. Initially they made my inner ear burn a little, but that went away with just a little use.
Since I first wrote this review, I’ve tested a number of different IEM’s and I’ve also gone forth into the world of alternate tips. The tips that are included with the Hippos create a suction that is so tight that I actually felt my ear-drum “popping”. I’m not the only one who has experienced this. One of my good friends borrowed them for a time and the pressure that it creates was too much for him to bear for long. While I had the problem, I typically was able to relieve enough pressure simply by pulling up on the top of my ear to create enough of a gap to release some air from the inner portion of my ear. But, if you want to know what I believe to be the ultimate pairing with the Hippos, you won’t be able to beat a set of Comply Foam Tips. With a set of Comply tips, not only does the popping go away, but the seal is absolutely perfect and the comfort is increased drastically. If you are sold on getting a pair of Hippo VB’s after you’re finished reading this review, go ahead and spring for a set of the Comply Foam Tips – you will be glad you did (just as an FYI – when you see the price of $15 for the non-wax guard versions or $20 for the tips with the wax guards, that’s not for one pair, it’s for THREE – so it’s not as bad a deal as you would initially think and they will undoubtedly improve your listening and wearing experience).
Microphonics – 60
If there’s a weak spot of the Hippo VB’s, it’s the isolation of the noise from the chord rubbing against your clothing. Noise is transmitted straight to your ear and it can be loud and more than a little annoying. That being said, the Hippos have an included clip that does help tremendously by reducing the amount of movement in the cord. Also, if you wear the headphones in the over the ear fashion, this tends to kill of many of the noisy cord vibations as they hit your outer ear and are not transferred into your inner ear. One thing I should mention is that wearing them over the ear can change the sound signature slightly. I’ve found that this is reduced when using the Comply Foam Tips with the Hippos, but with the included tips, there was a noticeable difference. You will just have to experiment to see what works best for you.
Isolation – 90
If you want a set of headphones that will allow you to block out the world, these do a stellar job! I’ve missed phone calls, had people walk right up beside me while working, and worn these while doing yard work. These block out all but the loudest of noises and also keep sounds meant for your ears where they belong. If you work in an environment where you don’t want to impose your music upon your associates, these are outstanding. I have turned these up to the point where I thought my ears were going to bleed and nobody around me can hear a sound coming from my direction.
Alright, onto the part that everyone cares about…how do these things sound?! Well, in a word, terrific. But, finding what is just right for you, there’s a world of difference to be had in the varying adjustments. I’m going to start off with the mids and highs as there needs to be a whole subsection dedicated to the bass variations.
Mids – 80
The Hippos have a midrange that is rich and full to my ears. Women’s vocals, men’s vocals, guitar, piano, horned instruments: they all sound “perfect”. I know that’s a bold statement, but listening to the Hippos will make you a believer. If there is just one thing lacking in the mid-range (and this actually might be more in the treble section), it’s the airiness associated with vocals or wind-instruments. This is actually a tough one for me, because while the Hippos sound tremendous as far as the pitch, tone, everything, they are missing that extra something that makes headphones like Grados and the Triple Fi 10 so utterly jaw-dropping to listen to. In all fairness, we’re talking about different price ranges and different form factors as well. So, in short, the midrange is very natural and involving, something I wish that more headphones had as this is probably the most important band for music.
Treble – 80
Here is another case where what you hear just sounds so good. The treble is so smooth and so clean that it is a very easy headphone to listen to. Only at insanely high listening volumes to the highs become a bit sibilant and out of control. There is a reason why I started off with “what you hear” in that first sentence. Much like the mids, there is just that little extra that is missing from the overall sound picture. Don’t get me wrong, unless you’re an absolute audiophile or you’ve got a set of much more expensive headphones lying around that you can compare these to, this won’t be anything all that noticeable. It’s not until you step up in price range or into a different style of headphones (like open air, over the ear headphones) that you will experience those subtleties that will have you in awe. For those who enjoy music and aren’t sitting around trying to analyze the music or the equipment, these are exceptional at producing sounds that are pleasing and natural to the ear.
Soundstage – 70
If there’s one area where the Hippos fall a bit short, it’s the soundstage. It’s not that you can’t separate instruments from one another or even the general direction they’re originating. It’s more so the fact that listening to the Hippos doesn’t give a tremendous feeling of depth. Listening to the Hippos is the equivalent to listening to a wonderful set of speakers, as opposed to being at a live concert. You feel more like you’re listening to an album as opposed to experiencing a live concert. This is not a deal breaker to me, simply because they are so good at the album portion that I can overlook not feeling like I’m sitting on stage with the artists. If you need to feel that space and presence there are other headphones out there that will definitely provide a better experience, and for less money in some cases. However, I’ve only yet listened to one IEM that was able to pull off everything else the Hippos can and include the soundstage – the Ultimate Ears Triple Fi 10’s – and these are more than double the price.
Bass – 100
Bass Heavy Screw (no markings)
With the bass heavy screw installed, bass lovers are sure to be happy as these things play loud, low, and MOSTLY clear. You’ll notice that the bass gets a tad bit muddy and there is a bit more boom to the overall sound. The best way I know to describe the smooth and accurate bass is to compare it to all the kids with their car subs turned all the way up. Typically when you hear one of those mobile earthquakes coming your way, you’ll hear a very boomy bass that typically sounds like three or four tones regardless of the note being played. While that bass is loud and very punchy, it almost always lacks any musicality or accuracy. These headphones have a very flat sounding bass response. I played several bass sweep sounds through these headphones and the volume stayed pretty consistent and the notes were VERY clean and distinguishable all the way up and down the curve. All that being said, the bass heavy screw is EXTREMELY bass heavy. It’s so strong that it outweighs the mids and the highs. This isn’t necessarily a horrible thing if that’s what you’re in to – for instance, if your primary genre is rap or hip hop, this may be perfect for you. However, most other genres of music will almost certainly be better represented with the middle bass screw.
Middle Bass Screw (2 dots)
With the middle bass screw installed, things become much more balanced. The bass is still very present but no longer overpowering. The midrange is very clear and maybe a bit forward without being overstated. For guitars, vocals, etc. these perform very well. The treble is clean and crisp from reasonable to loud listening levels. If you try to go too loud on these (and I do mean very loud), the mids and the bass become a bit muddy and the treble, sibilant. For 95% of the people out there, these will play plenty loud enough and with a sound that will put a smile on most people’s faces. NOTE: Since writing this review, I’ve acquired a Fiio E11, and man oh man does that thing make these sing – they go much louder without any distortion, which leads me to believe that the distortion I experienced before was due to the limitations of the amping on my sources. Back to the two dot screw – this is by far my favorite, and I’ve yet to change it in favor of the others except for review purposes.
Minimum Bass Screw (3 dots)
So I had to put these in just so I could provide a complete review, and here’s the deal. This particular screw drops the impact and overall depth and loudness of the bass substantially. That being said, there are people out there who will appreciate this lower level of bass. I still believe that even with this particular screw in, you will be hard pressed to find another set of in ear monitors for even double the price that are as accurate as these are. These really are special. While this level of bass isn’t my cup of tea, I can see the appeal as the bass is even tighter and the mids and highs come out even more.
Music from Enya is very involving and makes you want to close your eyes and lose yourself in the music. The full range of the VB’s provides a feeling of being engulfed in the emotion that her music provides.
Andreas Vollenweider’s Book of Roses is a very interesting compilation of songs that incorporate every day sounds with lively and involving music. Andreas’ electric harp sounds alive in the Hippo’s, the scratching of pencil on paper would make you swear it was your hand weilding the utensil. The thunder of the timpani is full and palpable, and the piano’s timbre is spot on. Everything about his music is full and well defined in these headphones, a true pleasure to listen to.
Three Days Grace, Godsmack, Tool and others sound incredible in these cans. There is a small caveat though for rock lovers. This is where some will love these for their accuracy, or for others who like to play their tunes at ear-bleeding levels, they will either need to invest in a decent amp such as the Fiio E11 or they’ll want to look into a more easily driven set of in ears. Please, don’t misread here, these headphones will play LOUD, but if you try to drive them to insane levels with a weak-amped source, the sounds become very distorted and they all begin blending together. At low to high listening levels (levels that would please most people), these are incredible with your every day devices. I’ve found myself listening to these things for hours with rock music, and VERY infrequently have I found myself wanting for more volume.
For lovers of the pop scene, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Rhianna and the multitude of popular hits of today, these are perfect. The bass will get your head bobbing and the vocals are clear and strong. Nothing ever feels overpowering, unless again, you turn the headphones up past the source’s capability. Once you do this the highs become sibilant and the lows and mids start distorting.
I’m not a huge fan of Bluegrass, but to be honest, I’ve found myself listening to instrumental pieces more and more since I’ve picked up these headphones. Guitars, banjos, violins and all varieties of stringed instruments just sound fabulous in these things. Artists such as Nickle Creek and the Greencards have a variety of music that can move you in ways that only music can do. Also, artists such as Tommy Emmanuel, Andie Mckie, Antoine Defour are a treat. You can hear the pluck of the guitar string and the notes resonate the perfect amount of time. For you Pink Floyd lovers out there, you’ll find yourself enjoying those tracks in a brand new way! There is a quality to the sound that makes you believe it, rather than just hearing it.
After having spent much time with these headphones and acquiring a number of pairs of other IEM’s, over the ears, etc. over the past year, I still have to say this is one of my favorites, especially for the price. My sources are most commonly my iPhone 3GS, a PC, and my Mac. On the iPhone, I have some higher quality (lossless) recordings that I listen to, and if I go the streaming route, I use Slacker as their bit-rate is higher than Pandora. While I love the Pandora service and their selection of music, which seems to be more spot on than Slacker, their sound quality is just too poor to use with more detailed headphones. I’ve rarely felt that anything was lacking with the used sources and my file choices. But, I will say, if you put a decent quality amp such as the Fiio E11 in line with the Hippos, you’ll find that you’ll enjoy your music even that much more. They will stay clearer louder and they’re just a great set to listen to. Also, as mentioned above, do yourself a favor and get the Comply Foam Tips to go with these. You’ll be glad you did.
In summary, the Hippo VB’s put out a sound that is incredible especially when you take price into consideration. When using the middle tier bass screw, the sound on these is very balanced, natural, and well-suited for a variety of types of music. I’ve listened to just about everything: Rock, Rap, R&B, Classical, New Age, Pop to Blue Grass, Country, Folk, just to name a few. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m dedicated to bring more information to all of you out there, I’d be tempted to stop with these! For the price, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better, more natural and well balanced in ear headphone. These really are a special value.