Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Gear Review: Skullcandy Ink'd Headphones

At some point in their running career, most runners use a pair of headphones. It might be on the treadmill, it might be lifting or cross-training in the gym, or it might be running outside (hopefully in an area devoid of cars, cyclists, dogs, and other hazards). When I'm looking for a headphone to use while working out, I want something cheap (because it will inevitably get ruined), something with at least passable sound quality, something small and light (preferably an in-ear monitor), something that's going to stay in my ears, and something that can deal with a little bit of sweat. My current workout headphone of choice is the Skullcandy Ink'd.

Now, before I go any further, let me say I do not condone racing with headphones, particularly when it's explicitly spelled out in the race rules as either forbidden or discouraged. It's disrespectful to the race organizers, to volunteers that you can't hear, and to other competitors whom you're more likely to obstruct. And honestly, I don't want to hear the "I keep it low so I can hear" argument. If the race declares itself headphone-friendly, then fine, bring your iPod and rock out. However, if headphones are forbidden or discouraged, keep in mind that you signed a contract stating that you would follow the rules and leave the headphones at home. If you absolutely can't run without headphones, wait until the race is finished and go run the course by yourself.

Alright, enough with the lecturing, and on to the review! The Skullcandy Ink'd is an in-ear monitor, or IEM, meaning that it is actually inserted into your ear canal. This style of headphone is sometimes referred to as an earbud, but it should not be confused with the buds that are made in the style of the stock Apple earphones that come with iPods and that sit outside your ear canal. The Ink'd comes with three different size silicone gel tips, and the user can install the tip that best fits his or her ear. Comply foam tips can be purchased separately for those who prefer the fit of foam, which better conforms to the ear (though foam tips do not last as long). This also acts as passive noise cancellation, making them an isolation earphone, since little sound is able to penetrate the barrier that the tip forms. This makes these headphones unsuitable for running outside, but great for use on the treadmill or the gym, where it will block out unwanted noise, whether that noise is treadmills, bad gym music, or grunting weightlifters.

Skullcandy Ink'd action shot on the bike trainer ( don't want to see the face I'm making)
The Ink'd isn't particularly durable, as it's a plastic headphone, and I cracked one of my buds when it was hanging out of my car door and I didn't notice and shut the door on it (to be fair, that would destroy most headphones). However, a little bit of duct tape seemed to fix it, and it still works perfectly fine. Skullcandy products in general seem to have less than stellar build quality (I've had three other products from that company break with no abuse whatsoever), but the company stands by their products and has a fantastic warranty program, where any headphone broken because of a defect in the product is replaced for the price of shipping the broken headphones back to the company, and any headphone broken because of user abuse is replaced for 50% off. Every time I've warrantied something with Skullcandy, they've gotten back to me within a few weeks with a coupon for the price of the headphone plus shipping to use on their website. The good thing about the plastic shell is that it keeps the headphones very light. Of all my headphones, these are the least noticeable. While not actually waterproof (at least I don't think they are, but I haven't absolutely soaked them, so I guess I'm not 100% sure), they seem to hold up pretty well to sweat, which is more than I can say for two more expensive metal IEMs that I've used. Your mileage may vary if you sweat very heavily, but if that's the case, you may run into problems with any headphone that isn't explicitly advertised as waterproof. Plus if you break them they're $20, even if you don't use the warranty. Good deal.

Skullcandy Ink'd, complete with duct tape. Yeah, I can't believe these still play fine either, but they do. Note: These are NOT the silicone tips that come with the Ink'd. They're from a pair of Crossroads Mylar that shorted out due to sweat, but I lost the Skullcandy tips that fit me.
A lot of audiophiles complain about Skullcandy headphones' sound quality. And to be truthful, right now, as I'm typing this and listening to Metallica, I'm using my Ultimate Ears, because they sound a whole heck of a lot better. However, I'm not bringing $200+ headphones that I know don't stand up well to moisture to the gym. Not. Happening. For $20, the Ink'd doesn't sound half bad. It's a little bass heavy, but if you like your music colored that way (as I do), they're a pretty good choice. There are better choices if you like a flat, accurate tone or if you're a big fan of midranges (which tend to get drowned out with this headphone), but for bassheads looking for a cheap workout can, this is your headphone. There are some microphonics (unwanted sound when the cables rub against your clothes), but I've definitely heard much worse, often from more expensive headphones. Also, as a note, the Ink'd does not label its speakers as right or left specific, and either bud seems to fit in either ear without reduced sound quality. The only issue with this is that some songs will take advantage of stereo sound and only play certain parts of the song out of one speaker, but that's pretty nitpicky, and for most people, isn't an issue, especially for a workout headphone.

Since the Ink'd comes with different size silicone gel tips, they do a pretty good job of staying in your ears. They'll pop out if the cable gets snagged on something, but they don't just fall out randomly like some non-IEM buds do. This is, of course, somewhat personal depending on the shape of your ears, though most people should be able to find a gel tip that fits their ears (and if not, there's always Comply foamies). You can also try wearing them upside down and looping the cable behind your ears, though I've found the Ink'd doesn't seem to stay in quite as well as some other headphones worn this way. They're also a relatively comfortable earphone, since they're light, and while they are IEMs, do not insert extremely far into your ear, like some of the dual and triple flange tips do.

The cable is thin and light, and measures in at a relatively short 1.3m, which is good for not having a bunch of extra cord to constantly get caught on workout machines or flapping around while you try to run. It has a straight plug rather than a L-shaped plug, if that matters to you, and the plug is 3.5mm, meaning it will fit just about any portable music player (but not full-size speaker systems or the phones that use those really little plugs). It's also a Y-cable as opposed to the awkward J-cable, meaning that both buds are attached to cables of equal length, rather than one being longer than the other (I hate J-cables). A version of the Ink'd, cleverly named the Mic'd, is also available with a microphone, in case you use your phone as your music player. I cannot speak for the quality of the microphone on the Mic'd, since I do not own that model.

Are there better sounding headphones out there? Of course. But can they be found for a cheap enough price that I wouldn't mind destroying them at the gym, and can they put up with sweat and a cracked case? Probably not, which is why I continue to use the Ink'd for my lifting and bike trainer workouts, and will probably replace them with another pair of the same headphones if and when they ever break. The Skullcandy Ink'd is available from Skullcandy's website in a variety of colors for $19.99, though some colors can be found on closeout for $14.99. The Mic'd version retails for $24.99.

Full disclosure: Not much to disclose, since I bought these. The opinions expressed in this review are mine and based on my experience, and do not reflect the opinions of Skullcandy.


  1. Thanks for the review! Although I'd like to point out that if you look VERY closely at the part where the cord connects to the bud, there is an R or L imprinted on each one. No worries though, it's very subtle and I didn't notice this until I had them for a while.

  2. Thanks for the note! I must be blind, because I still don't see it. They're pretty old, so maybe it wore off before I ever noticed it.

  3. Fast Punx earphones - how cute!

  4. An idea regarding earphones: Although not stereo, I have found ultimate delight in my specific single-ear, in ear Bose Bluetooth headset Series 2. ($150) So secure that I can do a triple spin (former Ballet dancer) and the earpiece stays in and totally secure. I promise. Bose is not paying me. I have found that with the volume low and my other ear open, I am very aware of traffic and goings on. No wires. Just high quality sound streaming via blue tooth from my phone which is my device of choice. One push of a button on my earpiece and I can even answer the phone. (Also, there's a volume control on the earpiece.) This Bose does have a very specific soft plastic piece that goes into one's ear canal and may be susceptible to 'sweating', but keep it clean and I'm sure it will not cause problems with your ear. Last word of advice: It's small and you'll lose it quickly!!! I put the tiny black case on a huge key chain with a monkey fob attached. If it is not in my ear, my Bose is in this case!!! 1 year and counting - I haven't lost it yet!

    1. Thanks for the suggestion! Can't really afford to drop $150 on headphones right now (and having already spent a good chunk of change on my Ultimate Ears, I'm not sure I can justify it either), but a good suggestion for my readers who are looking for a nicer headphone!

    2. Thanks for the reply! And, I'm glad to see your note about your injury recovery. Very inspirational!


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