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As the headphones guy on staff, I see a lot of audio gear. But unless a product is really special, once I'm done testing I go back to my old favorites. V-moda's new XS on-ear headphone is one of those special products.
Over the past few years, V-moda has released a number of great headphones that offer the company's "modern audiophile" sound signature: overall accuracy, but with a bit of bass emphasis for a toe-tapping kick. In addition to great sound quality, these headphones have all been impressively well built, and they've had designs that are - at least to my eyes - much more stylish than the typical higher-end headphone. But the XS just may be my favorite of the bunch.
The XS essentially takes the acclaimed Crossfade M80 and improves on it while making it truly portable. The XS has the same sturdy, leather-wrapped headband - which can be pulled and twisted to an astonishing degree without breaking it or affecting its shape - and the same compact earpieces with soft, memory-foam earpads. The metal hinges are rugged, and though the entire package weighs less than seven ounces, it feels like it should be able to handle a good amount of trauma.
(V-moda says the XS has been tested to withstand over 70 drops onto concrete from 1.5 meters, and that it can survive extreme temperatures, humidity, salt spray, and UV rays--in other words, as long as you don't drop the XS in the pool, it should last a while. The company provides a two-year warranty, and V-moda's "Immortal Life Program" promises that if you ever destroy your XS, regardless of the cause, you can get a replacement for half price.)
But whereas the Crossfade M80 is only moderately portable, the XS is specifically aimed at portable use: The earpieces fold up into the headband, allowing the XS to fit into the included hardshell travel case, which is compact enough to fit in even a small laptop bag or backpack. Alternatively, you can use the included carabiner to clip the case to the outside of your bag--the case is sturdy enough to protect the headphones from most reasonable abuse.
Another big improvement over the M80 is the XS's unique headband design. Whereas a traditional headband rests most of the weight of the headphone on the crown of your head, with gaps on the sides of your head, the XS's headband is shaped to remove those gaps so the headphone's weight is distributed more evenly along both the sides and the top of your noggin. The result is both an aesthetic improvement (the headphone looks less bulky) and, more important, a noticeable increase in comfort. With many full-size headphones, the crown of my head eventually gets sore due to the weight resting on that single point; with the XS, I'm able to listen for hours at a time without discomfort.
An interesting feature of the XS is that it includes two inputs. At the bottom of each earpiece is a 1/8-inch jack for the included headphone cable, so you can choose to have the cable connected on the left or right. But these jacks can also serve a couple other purposes: You can plug a second audio source into the unused jack--the XS mixes the two inputs--or you can connect a friend's headphones so that you can both listen to the same source. (The XS ships with two "V-Cork" plugs to cover the extra jack when not in use.)
Speaking of cables, the XS includes a cloth-covered, Kevlar-reinforced, 4.5-foot headphone cable with inline remote and microphone modules. V-moda says the cable can withstand over one million bends, but my favorite feature here is that V-moda separates the mic and remote, placing the mic closer to your mouth for better audio pickup while positioning the remote module farther down the cable to make it easier to reach (and see). I am disappointed, however, that the cable offers only a single-button remote, instead of the company's nicer three-button version. (You can purchase the three-button version separately.)
As for audio performance, V-moda says the XS improves on the M80, and though the differences are subtle, I agree. You get treble and midrange that are clear and well balanced (a bit more so, to my ears, than with the M80), along with bass response that's tight and deep, but emphasized just enough to get your head bobbing without sounding boomy or bloated. It's, as V-moda has appropriately named it, audiophile-grade sound with a modern kick.
Noise isolation, on the other hand, is only moderate. It's good enough to block out a decent amount of external noise, and to keep your music from bothering others, but it's not as good as with a set of closed, over-ear headphones, or with B&W's on-ear P5, another on-ear favorite, which uses a unique leather earpad that excels at isolation.
However, I came away liking the XS better than the P5 in many ways. The XS folds up into a more-compact travel configuration; it feels more rugged; and though the P5 has a smoother overall sound and better isolation, the XS is a bit more, well, fun to listen to thanks to better top-end detail and that extra kick at the low end.
In our review of the V-moda M80, R. Matthew Ward called the M80 "the best pair of sealed, supra-aural [on-ear] headphones I've tried." I think the XS sounds slightly better, its improved headband is more comfortable, and its fold-up design makes it more portable. If you're looking for a great headphone--great sound, great looks, and great fit--the XS is tough to beat among on-ear models.
(The XS is available in matte black or white/silver. As with V-moda's other full-size headphones, the metal "shields" on each earpiece are interchangeable and customizable--you can order your own shields with laser-engraved text or logos.)