Editor’s Note: Review updated on Feb. 22, 2012 to reflect technical changes to testing conditions.

Earbud headphones are standard issue with most cellphones and MP3 players these days. Not so standard are earbud headphones that claim to be “studio monitor quality.” Even more unusual are earbuds made mostly from degradable/renewable stuff like wood and metal. Both of these distinctions mark the new MS01 “8mm in-ear monitor” by Thinksound. A couple of former Tivoli Audio engineers formed Thinksound to make great hi-fi equipment with a minimal environmental footprint, and the MS01 earbuds are one of their latest offerings.

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Using responsibly sourced materials and nearly plastic-free packaging, the company avoids some of the environmental problems that come with making tiny electronics. But before current earbud owners shell out their C-notes for the upgrade, they’ll also want to know if the MS01 Monitor Series put out sound that’s on point. Well, we checked them out recently and here’s what we found…

Deboxing

Thinksound uses bleach-free brown cardboard to package these earbuds, though there’s a four-inch tall plastic window on the front of the box showing the product inside. The earbuds themselves nest in a 1″ thick chunk of cardboard which replaces the soon-to-be-thrown-out bulky plastic bubble that most headphones and other small gadgets come in.

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Rubber foam tips are provided to accommodate different sizes of ear canals. Other provisions include a clip to fasten the earbuds’ cable to your clothes, rubber hooks to put behind your ears so the earbuds stay in when you’re doing sporty stuff, and an unbleached cotton pouch for carrying it all.

Features

The MS01 earbuds look built to last, like car parts. Your first thought when you see them may be “Solid! That’s how a piece of machinery like an earbud should be made!” From-the-earth-back-to-the-earth materials like metal and wood dominate their design (though some plastic remains) and it’s striking just to see a piece of 21st century mass-produced electronic gear that appears so sturdy and classy to boot. Thinksound claims that the wood housing improves the sound of the MS01, which has been carefully equalized (they say “voiced”) by the CEO of the company in collaboration with a handful of successful recording artists.

If you use the right size rubber tip on the earbuds they serve basically as earplugs, blocking all outside sound so you can hear whatever you’re listening to in all its exquisitely equalized glory. Like many higher-end earbuds on the market, these have 8mm drivers with 18Hz to 20Khz frequency response. The MS01’s PVC-free cables (yay, non-toxic!) connect to your music-making device with a standard size mini plug that’s gold plated for “increased sound clarity.”

Setup

While you can take the MS01 earbuds out of the box and stuff them in your ears immediately like Christmas candy, it’s a good idea to set them up a little before use. We tried out all the foam rubber tips that the earphones come with to find out which best fit our ears. It turns out that the way they fit affects the sound a lot: too small a tip will fall out and fail to block ambient noise; too large a tip will pop out easily and collect earwax.

We also discovered that some sound was cut off when we situated them at different angles.

Performance

When we arrived at the right listening setup, the MS01 in-ear monitor headphones poured out sound crisp as a fresh apple and bright as a sunny orchard day. We got the sense someone used a shrink ray on some really high quality speakers and put the tiny result in our ears. Like all tiny in-ear speakers, these don’t put out as much bass as some larger, pricier over-the-ear headphones can. The emphasis here is instead on a highly accurate “flat response” sound profile, with mids and highs that are rendered in fine detail.

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Indeed, the detail is so fine that when we listened to the 3rd movement of Brahms’ Trio No 1 while wearing these earphones we could actually hear the pianist pressing and releasing the footpedal, accompanied by the sound of the hammers lifting off the strings. No other high-quality earbuds we tried could match that feat. Such clarion sound will be appreciated by serious lovers of jazz, classical, folk, north Indian, electronic, and books on tape, among others.

The understated bass slims down fat violin bowstrokes a bit, and some hardcore hip-hop lows can get a touch murky. All told, the bass response of the MS01 earbuds is fairly impressive for their size, but their real strengths are their mids and highs, not to mention their sweet looks and pillowy feel in the ear.

Conclusion

The MS01 Monitor Series are lookers and—if they’re set up right—they’re howlers, too. If you’re looking for accurate sound reproduction and don’t need skull rattling bass, this is a good place to start. You could definitely do a lot worse at this price point. If your dollars can vote, a vote for the MS01 is also a vote for environmentally conscientious electronics—a rare thing even in this greening age. All told, it’s a successful venture by Thinksound, who we’ll be watching for future offerings as well.

You can buy the MS01 from ThinkSound for around $100.



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