Some of the more comedic owners of the Nokia Lumia 920 might suggest a warning pamphlet be included with the sale of each device, preparing the end-user of the likelihood of injury from whacking someone across the forehead with the phone. In the same respect, the Hippo VB could use a similar one. It is somewhat of a challenge to find another set of fun IEMs that can really take on this pair in any department of sound. I have read of a true headphone veteran bruising an eardrum from pushing the VB to the limit. So, take heed; the VB has impact. Lots. Don’t hurt yourself.
To start, it would not be a surprise if you haven’t heard of this marque until now. Hippo is an in-house brand of Asian retailer Jaben Audio. Jaben sells a variety of headphone-related items and also manufactures several products of its own. The Hippo VB is available via their website and several store locations among southeast Asia and retails for about $90.
The VB title is an abbreviation for “Variable Bass,” as this is the trademark feature of these headphones. These anodized-aluminum IEMs, along with a case of several single and dual-flange eartips in a fairly vast carrying case, include three pairs of bass plates which are removable from the back of each earphone. They range from three dots (greatest bass reduction), to two, to none (most bass emphasis). Users can simply swap out the pairs of plates to adjust the low-end frequencies to personal taste.
The devices themselves are very sturdy, feeling significant in your fingers, yet close to weightless in your ears. The cord is fairly good at preventing noise from hits and rubs being transmitted to your ears, thanks to a smooth and easy-to-untangle cable and a shirt clip. The end plug is angled at 90 degrees, meaning pushing it into a jack is much less likely to cause stress on the cable’s connection.
The sound is remarkable, save for the treble, in general. While I prefer being able to hear the crispness of drums and cymbals as loud as anything else, it is barely sibilant and metallic enough up there to make me say that I don’t care for the sound. While not terribly sibilant or metallic, it’s the combination that upsets what would be a rather good top-end. In my eyes, this is not a large problem. Some may even enjoy the uppity treble and be able to dismiss the issue as a problem entirely, as I was almost able to accomplish.
As the general signature of this IEM is a focus on bass and a balancing act with the treble, the midrange and vocals are the least powerful of the three. Naturally, they do take a backseat in terms of volume, but vocals, for example, lack some natural qualities and fall flat against the other sounds. They are still very much there, however, and can still be enjoyed, though not in a very precise or unusually pleasing manner.
Then there is the bass. Of the three aforementioned tuning plates, I highly recommend the two-dot plate. The 3-dot plate seems to do too much to mute the bass, meaning the high notes take over. That lets sibilance have a window to upset the music. The zero-dot, or open, plate does make the sound even darker; but having not listened to my pair of VBs in awhile, the low-end seemed uncontrolled and much too dark to allow me to enjoy the other sounds.
The sub-bass is astonishing; it can truly be felt. You can feel the impact inside of your head and almost inside of your chest when a kick drum goes off or some sustained electronic low-end noise fires. The effect is punchy and very detailed. The low-end hardly touches the midrange, as many bassy headphones can cause. Nothing I have heard punches and feels with the quantity, and not many I have heard do so in the same quality, in the way that the VB offers, and with the level of detail and balance offered to boot.
The soundstaging is very good. Width is the best quality, followed by height and general airiness. The depth is the only aspect mildly lacking, and yet it is not worth complaining about. It definitely isn’t the best for instrument separation overall when compared to my Philips SHE3580, but that mostly has to do with that width-only soundstaging; there are less dimensions for the music to exist within.
Conclusion: Buy, Try, or Cry?
For under $100, I don’t think you can buy a better bass-oriented IEM than the Hippo VB. They could easily beat out the Beats Tour, for example, though that’s strictly based on reviews I have read elsewhere. Though I wish the mids could perk up just a pinch, and hardly even vice versa goes for the treble, I have no problem enjoying these headphones. If your budget and sound preference is around the mark for these they are a perfect companion to your shiny new Windows Phone. If you want a more balanced sound or better sound stage, however, definitely look elsewhere.
Disclaimer: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know” is a phrase I remind myself of a lot, and it definitely applies to the headgear arena for me. You might not know what a Fiio E10 is, but I sure don’t know what the Audez’e LCD2 headphones (with an MSRP of just under $1,000) sound like. I am not an authority on sound. Furthermore, taste in sound is highly subjective. Based on what you have listened to before and what you listen to now will greatly change the apparent feel of the next pair you try. One man’s trash may be another man’s treasure, and vice versa.
[via Jaben Audio]