Ask Dan: $250 earphones for $37?!Date: 24 June 2007 Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
Aus PC Market's selling some very cheap "EC7 Stereo Earphones", which look like an Audio Technica product.
Are these original, and do they come with a warranty? What does "OEM" mean?
"OEM", in the computer industry, usually means a cheaper version of a product that doesn't come with pretty packaging or extras - you don't necessarily get a user manual or driver disk, either - because it's meant to be bought by Original Equipment Manufacturers for assembly into or bundling with something else. I talk about this a bit more in my old letters column here.
Usually, OEM products really are the exact same product, only without the frills.
Sometimes, "OEM" and "clone" and "knock-off" blur together. This appears to be one of those times.
These no-brand "EC7" earphones are physically very similar to Audio Technica ATH-EC7 GM earphones, whose distinctive ear-hanger design is supposed to keep them in place without forcing you to jam them into your ears.
The ones Aus PC gave me to fiddle with actually have the Audio Technica logo on them - and "JAPAN" printed on one of them, though I'm willing to bet that they were actually made in China. They come in a plain plastic bag, with no extras. What you see is what you get.
Genuine Audio Technica EC7s list for $US249.
From Aus PC Market here in Australia, these "EC7s" are $AU44 delivered. That's about $US37.20, as I write this.
They carry Aus PC's usual basic warranties - seven day coverage if they just don't work, and a seven day return-with-10%-restocking-fee period if they work but you don't like them.
If you're hoping for a manufacturer's warranty, you can keep on hoping. If you take them to your local Audio Technica retailer, you may not escape with your life.
Minimal warranty aside, the fact that these things sell for 15% of the price of the branded version makes them look a bit too good to be true. And, indeed, they are. These "EC7s" are not exactly the same as the proper Audio Technicas.
As far as fit and comfort goes, the OEM EC7s are the same, because they're exactly the same size and shape, as far as I can see. You hook them over your ears and wiggle the transducers into your earholes as best you can. And then, as with all earbud-ish headphones, you get to find out whether you're physically compatible with them or not.
There's a lot of adjustability in the EC7 design, with the springy ear-hanger attached to one end of a little bar with a pivot joint, and another pivot joint between the other end of the bar and the earbud itself. It all feels solid and secure; you could believe these things were quite expensive.
Some people think that the EC7 design, regardless of adjustability, starts out uncomfortable and only becomes more so with time. I don't mind 'em that much. No earbud can both seal well across your ear canal and be truly comfortable unless you go for very expensive custom-moulded in-ear units, and I think the EC7 shape strikes a reasonable balance. I'd feel robbed if I'd paid $US249 for this, but for $US40 or less they're comfy enough.
Which brings us to the sound.
I haven't listened to the real EC7s, but I imagine they sound pretty good, if you can manage to get them sealed well across your earholes. I'm also confident in saying that you can buy much better sounding tiny headphones for the money, because no earbuds can compete with the sound quality of a half-decent canalphone. Canalphones start from about $US100 these days.
The EC7 clones sound... well, I've heard worse. They're definitely better than the bundled earbuds that come with cheap music players, and I'd go so far as to say that if you position them just right then they're better than the earbuds that come bundled with iPods, too.
If positioned right, they've got decent bass (for earbuds), and OK treble balance too, neither muffled nor piercing.
There's a quite pronounced midrange resonance, though, giving the characteristic "hollow" sound of cheap headphones the world over. You get used to it over time, but audiophile products these ain't.
Still, there's only so much sound quality you can jam into earbuds. They're inescapably unable to seal into the ears properly, unlike canalphones. But, also unlike canalphones, you can pop them off in a second without causing yourself agonising pain.
If these were ordinary earbuds, without the hook contraption, and they cost $AU44 delivered, I'd tell you not to waste your time. Since they come with the same spiffy design as the real Audio Technicas, though, I think they're not a bad product at all. The ear hangers do work tolerably well, they sound quite good enough for use on the bus or at the gym, and nobody looking at you will be able to tell that you haven't paid big bucks for the genuine article.
Incidentally, there seems to be more than one version of these OEM 'phones out there; the ones someone buys on eBay in Canada may not be the same ones I listened to here in Australia. If you're not paying more than $US40-equivalent, though, I reckon you're getting an OK deal.
Australian shoppers can buy the "EC7" earphones from Aus PC Market.
Click here to order!