Compared to full-scale headphones, where the scope for interesting design features and striking aesthetics is pretty large, separating earphones from the crowd by appearance is rather more difficult. Audio manufacturer Quarkie feels a radical approach is needed to bring some excitement to earphone design - something that’s made abundantly clear in its range of, let’s say unusual, products.
Quarkie earphones are designed to stand out. The back of each earphone is adorned with an eye-catching moulded feature, taking the form of a snake’s head, a bolt, a gemstone, or the eye of a cat, chameleon or snake. For those who are cynical, dull and acutely self-aware, much like myself, the idea of having such a gaudy object protruding from your ear is not particularly appealing. But for the young, trend-bucking extrovert, the design is fun; it’s quirky. It’s Quarkie, in fact - see what they've done there?.
Thankfully my review sample was the slightly less conspicuous Snake Eye model, so I was mercifully denied the humiliation of wandering around with a couple of two inch vipers sticking out from the sides of my head (like the poor girl pictured). The yellow eyes don’t look as tacky as you may expect and you also don’t feel any extra weight despite the additional plastic, so the overall situation isn't as bad as it could be.
The 1.2m woven chord dangles more obediently than a lot rubber cables that tend to twist and tangle - but this is countered by a lack of durability. After just a couple of weeks the chord has begun to fray, so it wouldn’t take much longer before it looked pretty cheap and scruffy.
A small remote sits on the chord, sporting one button to pause music (worked with both my Apple iPod and Android phone) and a microphone hole for when you’re using the earphones in call. Owning a touchscreen iPod, being able to stop a track at click of a button without unlocking the device, swiping in, and hitting pause, was a welcome convenience. As for calls, the microphone delivered clear speech to my recipient and the sound quality of their voice was excellent too.
It must be said that the Quarkies are extremely comfortable in the ear. They lodge securely, without feeling like they are driving deep into your canals, which is often the case with in-ear phones. Bundled in the package are tips of four different sizes too, so maximising comfort and noise isolation should be easy no matter the size of your ears. I haven’t managed to trial the Quarkies for a full long-distance run, but during some fairly intense dashes for public transport they showed no sign of slipping.
The aforementioned noise isolation warrants the emphasis Quarkie provides in the bumph. You don’t have to raise the volume to unhealthy levels to block out hustle and bustle around you, even in quite raucous surroundings like London Bridge station at rush hour. There's no much sound leaking out either. Just playing music while having the earphones in front of you, you notice how little sound is escaping - and while wearing the Quarkies, I had to crank the volume up to over 80 per cent on my iPod for someone who was sitting right next to me to be able to hear anything. You should therefore be able to enjoy pretty loud music on the commute without attracting looks from strangers – provided they haven’t already clocked the large pair of yellow plastic eyes you have sticking out of your ears.
Given the Quarkies look every inch the novelty item, you’d expect the sound quality to be shoddy; playing second fiddle to the design element. This is not the case. The earphones may now cost £30 on Amazon, but they hit the market at £69 for a reason, and are still priced accordingly on the Quarkie site. This is because they provide generally excellent sound quality. There’s a sharpness and an immediacy to everything you hear, with a real richness in texture. The bass is clear and crisp too, if perhaps lacking a little full-bloodedness at times.
When listening to lighter indie music, the guitars came through with clarity and you can get a feel of the picking and strumming of the instrument, not merely the notes being produced. On spacious, minimalist songs like Crystallised by The xx, these effects really add to the haunting quality of the song.
Vocals powered through strongly across all genres I played, and were particularly striking on rap records. It’s like the Quarkies remove some of the barriers between you and the performers – almost as if microphones and amplifiers have been taken out of the journey so you feel closer to the music, maximising the impact.
However, for all these positives, I couldn’t help but feel that extra element of depth is lacking too often. In songs where more is going on, with multiple instruments competing and some distortion also coming in to play, I felt the sound lacked a certain oomph. For example, The Vaccines’ boisterous 90 second romp in Wreckin’ Bar was slightly bereft of the raw energy it normally has, and the same could be said for a number of other ‘heavier’ tracks. Songs with fewer instrumental layers aren’t so affected by the degree of shallowness however, with most hip-hop and stripped back guitar-based tracks still sounding great.
So if you can get past the look of the things, you’ve got a good pair of earphones in the Quarkies. And let’s not be too harsh; the innovative and quirky design will appeal to many, especially children and teenagers. Which is why that £69 price tag on the Quarkie website is just puzzling (even if the likes of Amazon sell them for a more appropriate £30 as noted). Quarkie's pricing is clearly compensating for the high-end technology used in the product, but the customers they are most likely to appeal to just won’t be shelling out that kind of cash for earphones. It’s like concocting a fine bottle of champagne then slapping a Panda Pop sticker on the front and a curly straw in the top. You can’t help but feel good audio tech is being wasted in a silly product.
If Quarkie used its quirky designs on £10-£20 earphones for children and teenagers, it could be onto something. Equally so if it were to pack its strong audio tech into more sleek and understated-looking models and keep the price higher. The firm deserves credit for its attempt at standing out in a field which rarely serves up designs that take the breath away, but you cannot help but feel the strategy is just wrong here. The £69 pricing is most certainly all wrong, but even at £30 I'm not convinced the quirky Quarkies are worth the outlay compared to rival products at a similar price.