Sound is subjective. That’s the only reason people give credence to the question of whether falling trees make a sound. One expert will claim that the best listening experience is inside a car because of the enclosed environment and well designed acoustics. Another will argue that full-size headphones, with large drivers and a proper amp, is the best because it fully surrounds the ear and removes all possible interference. And others still will argue that molded earphones, even with their tiny drivers, are the best because they reproduce music straight into the ear canal. Some are looking for the best headphones for TV, others for music on the go.
But they’re equally right and wrong. Listening to music is more about the experience than the sound, which makes comfort and feel more important than precision. Most people can’t — or don’t — notice a missed note or beat, let alone fragments and errors on a master copy. That’s why I’ve spent much of my writing career testing consumer-grade products: the higher-end market caters to people willing to sacrifice product quality for precision, or else pay preposterous costs. With audio equipment, “preposterous” can range from $500-$500,000, though in reality it can get much more expensive.
So when Torque, an LA-based hardware start-up, came to me with a new type of consumer-priced headphones built for extreme precision and comfort at a reasonable price, I was rightfully skeptical. Then I was told the set was customizable with filters, just like the Phonak Audeo PFE 232’s I looked at last year, a $500 set. That’s not the sort of thing that happens. Ever.
Torque is premiering with the t103z, a mid-range set of earphones with an in-line microphone that works with iOS and Android devices. It comes with three valves – the audio filters that funnel audio frequencies – a pocketable hard leather case, and a few sized buds. It’s elegantly produced in an aluminum box, though my test unit was literally that, and the production boxing is still undergoing finalization as of this writing.
The t103z is clearly stylish. The unit in the pictures you see isn’t finalized; changes will be made, such as the placement of the right/left ear indicators. Even as tested this is a good looking set of earphones; the black-orange-silver colors are stark. The branding – a T with a curved top, indicating the filter – is both subtle and cool to look at. The in-line mic separates the longer flat cable that connects to your device and the rounded cables that connect to the earbuds themselves (this also fixes issues long-time headphones users find where the split from one to two cables wears out and eventually tears).
Without the buds, the t103z has a clean, pure, metallic finish. Unlike the Phonak set, the filters are pure metal; they have a solid weight and feel, and if you drop one it is large enough to spot on the ground. The filters require taking the buds off and unscrewing one set to replace it with another. We’ll get to the filters at the end.
The design is great, though close up the orange rubber does look a little cheap, as you can see in the pictures. The flat cabling doesn’t coil, and the flat-to-round design is different but smart. Once you get used to it the difference makes a lot of sense for practical use, especially due to noise from the cables. Unfortunately this set does get some noise disturbance from the cable moving and scratching against a shirt or zipper. The latter has been the bane of testing the t103z. The top round cabling does coil somewhat, and I spend a lot of time twisting them straight so the mic is properly facing forward.
I wasn’t sold on the earbuds and how comfortable they would be at first. The hard buds are meant to stick in-ear, which sounds uncomfortable. It surprisingly isn’t; I definitely feel outward pressure from the buds but it’s not painful or even annoying. More importantly the buds do a tremendous job of blocking out sound without blasting the volume to space.
The in-line mic is also counter-intuitive. It faces towards the body, with the buttons facing away from the wearer. The flat-to-round cable design also makes the t103z weird to wear for phone calls with just one earphone because there’s no clasp to keep the second one in place. Audio quality, however, was excellent, and on the half-dozen calls everyone said I sounded very clear. The buttons on the mic are easy to press, though they do feel large and cumbersome at first. After a few days I that they are extremely comfortable to use.
As Torque’s first headset, the product can make or break the company. I don’t think they’ll have any trouble: these headphones produces some of the cleanest, clearest sound I have ever heard, so much that at one point I thought (while listening to a track) that someone had broken into my home. After 8 years of listening the same song (and a mere 192kbps version at that) I never heard a major flaw. On my first listen with the t103z, I thought I was being burglarized because mid-song someone on the track coughed. It was so accurate and so unexpected that I actually thought someone else had entered the house.
The sound clarity is so good it’s criminal.
Throughout my testing period and after it, I’ve heard more errors, fragments, and downright flaws in tracks than on any pair of headphones or speakers in my life. I’ve also heard more guitar riffs, drums, melodies, percussion, voice cracking, and everything else that comes on music than ever in my life. I can’t say that with the t103z I feel like I’m really listening to the music for the first time, but this is a close second. Tracks that I previously disregarded certain instruments now feel like they’re actually there, for all types of music.
This may sound like a blessing and a curse. You get amazing clarity with audio reproduction that has the best and the worst of any given track. And for the record, that is consistently disregarding the quality of the track; I found that bitrate, while there is a difference, is minimal. But the point is that with the t103z you will hear music almost like you never heard it before, even if you’re the type to space out while listening.
Valves, aka Filters
The t103z comes with three filters, which the company is dubbing “Valves”: red, yellow, and black. Red is the default and the standard, with a balanced sound spectrum. It also is my personal favorite, and we’ll get to why in a minute. Yellow has a wider range on highs and is great for hearing percussion. Black is a heavy bass filter.
Red and Yellow, which Torque currently calls the Reference and Clear valves, respectively, are both excellent. I’m more partial to Red because I adore the clarity it provides across the spectrum. I’m not as heavy a percussion listener as I once was when I was younger, though after using Yellow exclusively for half of the testing period I found that you really need an amp to get the most out of it. The fine people at Torque recommended a few inexpensive ones, but the point is that Yellow needs a boost to get the full feel.
Red, on the other hand, has an awesome range. I can’t express my love for it enough. Black was the most challenging to get into because heavy bass, while currently “in”, doesn’t necessarily sound good. It feels good. For earphones, having thumping bass is next to impossible because of the power drain and drivers required. Black does produce very smooth bass — real bass, not club bass — but I only wanted to wear Black when listening to jazz and very select songs.
The problem I have with the filters, of all things, is removing and reapplying the buds to the earphones. It’s a surprisingly difficult process. Removing the valves themselves is a cinch even without the key tool, but the buds are a hassle and a half.
It’s hard to find everyday things — be it a tool, piece of clothing, a gadget of some sort, or anything — that actively changes your perspective or behavior. People say the iPhone did that. I have an excellent Leatherman pocket knife that has faithfully served for 13 years and continues to do so. These are the objects that help define who we are as people.
For me, the t103z has really grown into my default audio tool. The lightweight and comfortable design that blocks 95% of sound is excellent. It’s stylish, clean, minimalist yet completionist. And as someone who is as close to an audiophile as one can get without listening only to FLAC audio and storing my music — in triplicate — on my own servers, the t103z is unparalleled. I haven’t heard a better sounding headset three times the price of Torque’s. For $180, the t103z is a steal.
While the t103z isn’t out yet, I highly recommend it for anyone. Unless you’re a Beats person who just wants bass and has no soul. If you want to listen to music, there’s no better way than with the Torque t103z.
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