A pause for thought from an environmentally friendly audio company (is that even possible?)
About Thinksound, the In20 & me
Firstly, I must make a disclaimer. This puts me first and everything else in the also rans. That is good for the ego but a smack in the face for those of you who want to get to the chorus – and fast! I have been sent this earphone from a dear friend of mine, who in return, was sent it from Thinksound. As is typical of Thinksound there was very little fanfare. Andy was pleased to hear that I was happy to do a little write up of my findings. Thinksound are not even aware of my existence on this planet. I am offered no reward or recompense for the words you will now come to read. If you are a regular visitor to my musings – welcome back. You will know that I Thinksound are about caring for the environment. CEO and head designer, Aaron Fournier, is trying to create a more natural looking range of portable audio cans and iems. He uses wood on his full sized headphones – not the only manufacturer to do that, of course. As for the in ear varieties, apart from JVC having a brief foray into this a while back and a few resin designs that look like wood, you won’t come across many. Specifically, the In20 has a driver shell that is made from sustainable walnut. Thinksound state they use China for their production, being that the parts and labour costs are a fraction of their comparative cost in the US. Thinksound will only deal with those factories with the lowest of emissions and they assure us that they look for ethical production in the Far East above all else. Thinksound are typical of a small audio company. They produce only a few models and aim their market in the upper budget to lower mid range territory. The In20 model retails at $149.99. More details can be found here
It has a kevlar cable, an inline remote button and a 45º jack. The earphones are a bullet shape. This shape is becoming somewhat retro nowadays. The earphones are surprisingly low in their sensitivity, at 96 dB. The rated resistance is a reassuringly low 16 Ohms. The 2 figures together make for a need to push the earphones a little more than a standard smartphone will achieve. I’d recommend these with a standalone Dac/Amp or a Dac dongle. As a matter of fact, all of my listening thus far with the In20 has been done with the HM1000 Red R2R Dac/Amp from HiFiMan, retailing at $599. My review on the HM1000 is here. A little overkill? Perhaps. But if you’ve got it, use it. Aaron Fournier has a wealth of experience in the audio industry. Before founding his own company he worked on designs for V Moda. I must state that I was dismayed having read this information! I am not a fan of the V Moda products. The sound is not to my liking; not at all. I bought a set of full sized cans a few years ago and they were not to my taste. Their consumer sound was super bloated and v shaped to headache levels. You can understand therefore that it was not without some trepidation that I approached the In20. Loyal followers of my musings will already know that the In20 has achieved at least enough to warrant a mention here. For those of you unfamiliar with the trek code; if I like it, I write about it. If I don’t, I don’t waste my time. Or yours.
The unboxing experience
This, a ritual of every reviewer and an eagerly awaited experience for every purchaser, is not to be underestimated. Think about it from the perspective of a company: they want repeat business. They need to reel you in with a generous gesture or 2 – think of it as a “welcome to the family” moment. Yes, the consumer buys the product on the strength of the spiel and the photos on the website selling the earphones. That is, if they haven’t done their research. If a consumer does their research, they will find reviews like this, which will explain, in detail, what you get for your money. The sound quality, of course, (certainly here) is of paramount importance. But I will never ignore the attention to detail. I always comment on what is included in the package. First impressions count. If the unwrapping experience is a disappointment, you will hear about it. If I’m pleased, I’ll tell you. I am sorry to tell you that the unwrapping experience was a disappointment for the Thinksound. Let me explain why. First of all, the In20 comes in a tiny cardboard box. It looked cheaply made. It did nothing to convince me at this point that it was anything beyond a $20 product. Upon opening said box, the 1st thing I went for was the earphones themselves. The looks were understated, to be polite.
The cable was thin and had no individual flair to it. The drivers had some individuality because they had a wooden coat on them. They were however the blandest of shapes; that bullet shape. The bullet shape in my opinion needs to be phased out in favour of a flat, wide olive shape that fits inside the whole of the ear. Inside the cardboard outer was a few sets of tips in a plastic bag, a silky feel nylon drawstring bag and a t shirt clip.
Everything feels cheap and cheerful. To be frank; it’s not a cheap product.
The In20 in use
The In20 has an ear canal fit. It is hardly unique in this aspect. Etymotic are another company insistent on us wrestling with these potentially uncomfortable shapes. The reputation of that company carries them through and they don’t appear to want to change anytime soon. I have a set of ER4X IEMs. I find them a pain in the proverbial to use, but the results achieved just about make the fussing and faffing worth it. The way we can get decent isolation from an ear canal like the In20 is to shove them against the ear canal entrance and push them against the inner part of the outer ear. They should rest against that part of the earlobe without too much fuss provided you don’t wish to move around overly. If you want to be on the move, that is when the weight of the kevlar cable will start to produce an effect. If you are on the move, the cable tie clip is a must. The inline remote tended to weigh down the cable to a point that, on the move, the cable was inclined to pull the In20 driver slightly down my earlobes. To counteract that I had to pull the inline remote up through my t shirt and clip the remainder against the top of my t shirt. This sorted out the issue but did mean there was a significant length of cable protruding. The level of isolation attained using this method is extremely good. There is a constant pushing against the ear canal from the earlobe due to the length of the earphones. It’s a gentle but insistent pressure. The olive shape has the pressure across the whole of its mass. Due to the necessary compromises to establish a reasonable fit for everyone’s ears, in general, I’ve found the fits of my preferred olive shapes to not be as isolating. It’s a shame, but I must give you the truth. However much it hurts! The cosmetics of the earphones are rather bland. I find it hard to see what could really be done to jazz up the look of something this small.
Although these are purported to be wooden earphones, wood only really takes up 50% of the real estate of the phones. The tips are plastic and the barrel is metal. The reinforcement around the jack plug looks well thought through and the angle is a rethink from the usual straight or 90º.
The finish around the Y split and the terminations into the driver shells are worryingly spartan.
The saving grace on this may be that they are reinforced with kevlar on these weak spots. On the other hand, I’m wondering why they’ve put a lot of work into the jack plug but ignored the rest?
The all important sq. Everything can be forgiven if the sq is good. The In20 is described by Thinksound as smooth. Let me give you a few seconds to imagine what you like that to sound like. There. Times up. Smooth is a flavour. An audio colour. Smooth says no fatigue. Perhaps a slight fuzziness at the higher frequency range. Maybe a more intimate sound stage with a deal more concentration needed to pick out individual instruments or to follow the vocals. The definition offered by these images is not quite what I found from the In20. In fact, the answer was much more complicated than I expected. Please remember my bias explained previously in the article. I was not a fan of the V Moda sound, as engineered by Aaron (as far as I know) before Thinksound. And I was not impressed with the unboxing experience. The cosmetic appeal was underwhelming. The fit did nothing for me either. The In20 had a lot of ground to make up. And yet… The In20 is a fine sounding earphone which puts many finer looking more luxuriously packaged earphones to shame. The Thinksound is a single driver dynamic earphone. I tried it up against the Shuoer Tape IEM. These come with a beautiful 2.5 mm balanced cable.
They have a 3.5 mm adapter included as standard. They also have a distinctive look and a unique shape. There is a precisely machined saucer shaped pale green metal case that is scratch resistant. Tons of packaging, tons of tips. To further weigh them to a distinct advantage against this competitor, not only do they retail at $20 cheaper, but they have an electrostatic driver. I am amazed to tell you that the Shuoer Tape did not win this battle. It was slain by the Thinksound! On hearing the original soundtrack to The Blues Brothers, resplendent with horns, mouth organs, graininess wailing female vocals and warbling, deep intonations from Ray Charles, there was a noticeable extra clarity in the higher frequencies with the Tape.
The extensive listening session confirmed my suspicions; the Tape was running too hot. It had too much treble energy and tended to wander into fatigue. The bass on the Tape was not as pleasant as the In20. In every comparison I made against the Thinksound earphones, the In20s won the day. The bass on the Thinksounds are not smooth per se. There is some linearity here. The weight of the bass is kicking in just where it needs to be, neither light not bloated. Every IEM I tried had more bass than the Thinksound, yet every comparable one had too much impact, whether in the sub or upper bass regions, or both. Even with the ultimate victor, the now discontinued KBear Believe,
the In20 still had the slight edge on the bass performance. The sound stage of the In20 is wide. The separation and placement of the instruments in the mix is represented cleanly by them. The impression is that the vocalist is slightly closer to the ear than usual. And yet I was looking around for the sources of some sounds, even on the start of some drums on a 1970 recording, the Concert for Bangladesh. That was not at all what I expecting.
So why did the KBear Believe outshine the sq of the Thinksound In20? The margins between the winner and loser of this contest were minimal. The Believe has a beryllium driver, and retailed at $149. The controversy regarding the purity of the driver ultimately led to its early demise. I reviewed it only as recently as February of this year, and am sad to see it go. The driver of the Believe is able to squeeze more detail and more linearity out without feeling like it’s going into too much treble energy. The bass in the Believe had a touch more bloat than the In20. It may still be the case that those who listen to bass heavy music predominantly should look at the In20s, that is to say, if they can overcome the issues with cosmetics and fit. I should also state that there isn’t really a choice here either; the Believe is no longer available for sale.
My opinion? If you want to improve on the sq of the Thinksound In20, you are going to have to trawl the 2ndhand market or spend more money than the In20s retail at.
My preconceptions towards these earphones proved to be unfounded. I expect a lot from an earphone at this price level. I expect a touch of luxury. I’m afraid I was disappointed in that respect. The build quality needs to be right, the average warranty on a headphone is 1 year; you have to trust that’ll it’ll last many many years longer after the warranty expires. I worry about the terminations here, and I don’t think that the drawstring bag is affording much protection against cable strain. I also expect an extremely polished sound. In this case, I can say without reservation that the In20 has delivered the goods. That my well be the deal breaker for many of you reading this article. I have tried, as always, to be as balanced in my opinions as you should expect. I read no other reviews of the product before I put pen to paper. This gives me the guarantee of originality and gives you good people another informed opinion to form in your quest for the ultimate value for money. I wish you well in your journey and hope I have helped make that journey slightly shorter.