Don't assume that I'm just gushing over a newfound recreation.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

T e c h n o f i l e
$5 earbuds can turn your iPod into a hi-fi haven

Aug. 5, 2007

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2007, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2007, The Post-Standard

   I like to scour the Web for bargains. But the deal I want to tell you about this week practically fell out of the sky. I didn't have to search for it at all.
   Actually, it more or less fell into my shopping cart at my local Wegmans supermarket. I spotted a bright red package containing what purported to be high-fidelity earbuds, with the added benefit of reducing noise. When I saw the price -- $4.95 -- I swept the package into my cart. What could I lose? If they were no good, I would have paid less than $5 for an education. If they were decent, I could use them with my iPod.
   I was wrong on both counts. They earbuds, made by Sentry and sold as the HO229 stereo earphones, were as far from "no good" as "ice cream" is from "ice." And they weren't simply decent. They turned out to be extraordinary.
   Don't assume that I'm just gushing over a newfound recreation. I've been a hi-fi nut ever since I was 14 years old.
   I built my own amplifiers and speaker systems as a teenager, got into semi-pro audio recording as a young adult and was able to outfit my own digital recording studio in the late 1970s, years before audio CDs were introduced. For decades, I've loved good sound.
   And that's what I found in these little white earbuds. They're from China, but that's not a negative -- you might already know that the iPod itself is made in China -- and the design is every bit as sophisticated as any of the fancy audio equipment I've collected in the last few years.
   The Sentry earbuds are unusual in having concentric flares that get smaller toward the tip. These help hold the earphones in your ear while shutting out a lot of external sounds. The lowest bass notes, such as the sounds of kick drums and organ pedal notes, sound much stronger and clearer than the bass from the ear buds that came with my iPod. In fact, the Sentry earbuds have better bass than any of the other ear buds I found around the house. (We seem to collect them.)
   Higher notes were about equal in quality to my Apple ear buds, but the Sentry model had a clear advantage in this area: It could play louder, so it seemed to sound better. That's a trick of the ear, I suppose, but I did appreciate the extra oomph.
   With the exceptional promise of these $5 ear buds, you'd probably expect to find them praised at every turn. Yet I found no mention of them in the so-called "audio press" -- possibly because they're so inexpensive and seemingly unworthy of "serious" attention.
   Even the Sentry company itself doesn't seem to know it has a winner. I wrote to Sentry's Chinese headquarters without eliciting a response.
   And then, when I found that Wegmans had stopped carrying the earbuds, I wondered if I had the only super-fi $5 ear buds in the whole United States.
   But a few weeks ago I found them again -- this time in a Big Lots store, at the same price. If you have a Big Lots near you, look for them among the cheap headphones and iPod items clustered in racks near the front of the store. I scanned the front of the package so you can see what it looks like.
   Keep that $5 handy, and good luck hunting!