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Tour**


Welcome to the Z-buds! Here they are all folded up nicely.

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Now here they are without the twist ties.

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The cables are longer than the average pair of in-ears. Let's start with a closer look at the ear buds and make this a proper effictio.

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The buds have the traditional mesh at the tip of their nozzles, which helps shield them from ear debris. Also, note the relatively small area the sleeve have to hang onto. We found they tended to dislodge easily. Those cord guard-looking bits on the buds' undersides are actually hard plastic. The real cord guard is the cable casing itself, which should protect your wires fine on its own.

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The holes on the back of the ear buds give them a semi-open design. This translates into poorer isolation and leakage control than the average set of in-ears.

Next on down is the remote & mic, which is located on the left channel's cable. The remote and mic are on opposite sides of the same pendant.

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After a stretch, the left and right channels meet at a junction that has three moveable beads. Use these to manage the neck split.

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Further down the cable,  you'll find the volume control and finally, the plug itself.

Now here's what the headphones look like on HATS.

 


This is HATS, outfitted with the Z-buds. Note the thickness of the cable.

 

In The Box


In the Z-buds' triangular package, you'll find the headphones, six sets of sleeves for different sizes and shapes of ears, and a carrying pouch.

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**Durability**     (*5.25**)*


The main source of the Z-buds' durability issues, both good and bad, is its cable casing. For starters, the fabric coating is more durable than the soft plastic/rubber that's typically used. It can double as a cord guard since it'll help prevent the headphones' innards from bending in on themselves too tightly. The casing does create a bit of a weakness at the in-line accessory, however, because it doesn't bind to them. You can therefore spin the remote & mic around and around independent of the casing, twisting the internal wires. This is bad news, especially if you tend to ball up your headphones and shove them in a pocket when they're not in use.

Other than the casing joys/woes, there are a handful of minor points. The pin-hole open backs might be hard to clean should something get inside them. The sleeves aren't tethered onto the ear buds well, especially the foam set. Be careful any time they're not in your ears, because it doesn't take a lot to pop them off.

 

**Aesthetics**     (*5.00**)*


We're a bit torn on the aesthetics for the Z-buds. The ear buds don't have any real design to them, but this is a relatively minor complaint given how small they are. In-ears tend to either be white (iPod!) or black (not iPod!), so we really appreciate the splash of color. Conversely, the thickness of the cable looks a bit awkward, especially with the symmetrical form factor (shaped like a Y, as opposed to an asymmetrical design where one side is slung around the back of your neck).

All things considered, we're on the fence about the Z-buds. They're not beautiful, but they're not ugly either, which is the status quo for in-ears.

**

About our testing:**

For more information on our tests, read this article.

**Frequency Response**     (*3.29**)*


What we found:

The Z-buds definitely have a dynamic frequency response. The bass gets boosted quite a bit, much more so in the right channel than the left, oddly enough. We tried different positionings but got the same results each time. At about the 2kHz mark, the channels get in sync and remain that way until after 10kHz.

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The major issues we see here are the dramatic shifts in emphasis towards the high-end. From about 4kHz and up, emphasis shifts pretty rapidly. It decreases by about 30dB, then jumps 25dB before dropping another 30.

What does this mean? For starters, the headphones could sound boomy; the high bass response means that bass parts of music may sound overly exaggerated. It looks like vocals should be strong for the most part. Also, the lack of emphasis at 7kHz might make drums sound a bit weak.

How the Zagg Z-buds compares:

What is frequency response?

Frequency response describes emphasis across frequency bands. Some headphones like to boost certain frequencies' decibel levels to achieve a particular sound. For example, many headphones emphasize lower frequencies to achieve a stronger bass. Frequencies can also be deemphasized as well. If a pair of headphones fiddles around with emphasis a lot, they're called dynamic headphones. Reference headphones try to emulate their source sounds perfectly.

How the test works:

For our frequency response test, we first play a frequency sweep through the headphones. HATS, our trusty head and torso simulator, listens to the output. Since we know the original sound file, we can find out exactly how the headphones are changing playback. For more info, check out this link.

**Distortion**     (8.20*)*


What we found:

The Z-buds have very little distortion. There are some murmurs after 1kHz and towards the high-end, but they're very minor.

Overall, a great performance here by the Z-buds.

How the Zagg Z-buds compares:

**What is distortion?

*
*In short, distortion is bad. Distortion changes the sound of your audio. If you like acoustic music and you have a sensitive ear, distortion will make or break a pair of headphones for you. If you're more into music that already heavily employs distortion filters, such as classic rock or punk, you won't be as bothered.

How the test works:

To test distortion, we send a frequency sweep through the headphones. HATS records the output. We then compare the playback file back to the original sound. By doing this we can see how playing a sound through the headphones will alter it. To learn more about this process, read our 'How We Test' page, here.

**Tracking**     (7.46)


 

What we found:

Here we can see the weird emphasis from the frequence response graph above made manifest. The lower you go, the stronger the right channel seems to be. It isn't until after 1kHz that the two channels get on similar pages.

While the initial emphasis towards the right is certainly not ideal, We were happy to note there weren't any glaring errors otherwise.

How the Zagg Z-buds compares:

**What is tracking?

*
*Tracking deals with the volume balance between the left and right channel. Good tracking means their decibel outputs are more or less in sync. Typically bad tracking is a sudden jump in volume that's apparent in only one channel and only over a small frequency range. You typically won't see headphones that are solidly loud in one channel unless the headphones are defective.

How the test works:

To test tracking we again play a frequency response through the headphones. In this case, we only pay attention to the relative differences in volume level. The headphones can have a frequency response that's all over the chart: as long as both channels are emphasized equally wrong, their tracking will be fine. For a slightly more detailed description, check out the following link.

**Maximum Usable Volume**     (8.20)


What we found:

The Z-buds were capable of outputing about 112dB. This is a good amount of volume, although it falls slightly short of our ideal, 120dB, it should be plenty loud for most users. Anything over 120dB is dangerous to your hearing.

**What is maximum usable volume?

*
*Typically headphones don't have issues with playing high volumes. They do have issues playing high volumes at a low decibel level. High volume levels can lead to output sounding 'blown out,' which is generally an unwanted quality.

How the test works:

This test is a series of distortion tests. We simply increment the volume each time. When the overall distortion level hits 3%, that's our maximum usable volume level. For more on this test, read this article.

**Isolation**     (*4.74**)*


What we found:

Z-buds have a bit of an issue with isolation. They have virtually no isolation towards the low end, but improve as the frequency climbs.

We were actually impressed with the Z-buds' isolation, given their semi-open backs.

Regardless, they're still not great for a set of in-ears.

How the Zagg Z-buds compares:

**What is isolation?

*
*Headphones that isolate well will shield you from outside noise. Headphones that isolate poorly will let in external noise. Many agree that headphones with poor isolation help create a more 'open-sounding' soundstage, but unfortunately our robots can't test for this quality yet. Isolation is important for portable headphones, especially those used on a public transportation commute. For home use, this quality isn't as necessary.

How the test works:

Our isolation test is fairly straightforward. We put the headphones on HATS, then blast the setup with pink noise. HATS records everything that the headphones don't block out and reports back to SoundCheck. From there we can figure out what frequencies you'll end up hearing and what's not getting through. For a somewhat more detailed description, click here.

**Leakage**     (*5.45**)*


What we found:

The headphones have semi-open backs, so it's not a surprise they leak. It is unexpected, though, since in-ears are typically silent as they play music. The only in-ears that leak are ones that sit ouside the ear canal, but the Z-buds leak more than even these do. The Z-buds are great for putting on a concert to annoy those around you.

What is leakage?

Leakage refers to the sound that escapes from your headphones. Chances are if you're listening at home, leakage isn't a big deal. If you're in public though, it's a guaranteed shortcut to appearing obnoxious. This is especially true is libraries and museums. Further, it's unlikely people will understand that 90% of your iPod is filled with music you only like ironically. As a general rule, if you're out and about, you should pack headphones with low leakage.

How the test works:

Leakage is another easy test. We put the headphones on HATS and play pink noise through the headphones. We have a microphone a set distance away that records any noise that escapes the headphones.

**Short-Term Use**     (5.00)


The Z-buds come with three different sleeves that offer three different wear experiences. There's a soft plastic dome, a triple flange, and a thin foam set of sleeves. With the exception of the soft dome, the Z-buds fit pretty deep into your ear canal. If you dislike sticking objects deep into your ears, these sleeves are not for you. We typically wear soft domes, but didn't take issue with the in-canal sleeves. They're intrusive, yes, which took a while to get used to, but they don't exert a lot of pressure on the inner ear either. Once you get over the initial unease, the Z-buds are about as comfortable as the average in-ear.

The only other issue was the Z-buds aren't ideal for jogging or other physical activities. They tend to come loose after some jarring. If you're looking for a set of gym headphones, you should either go with an asymmetrical cord. Ideally the cable will be one to two feet in length so you can use one of those super cool arm bands to hold your media player. The Z-buds don't meet this criteria.

**Extended Use**     (*6.00**)*


After we were acclimated to the Z-buds, we found they were pretty comfortable. Typically in-ears exert pressure on the inside of your ears, which gets uncomfortable over time. We didn't run into this issue with the Z-buds. They aren't as comfortable as a nice pair of over-ears with luxurious padding and ergonomically perfect design, but they're pretty good for a set of in-ears.

**Customizability**     (*5.00**)*


The Z-buds have three different sleeve options: soft plastic dome, triple flanged (they look like a Christmas tree), and foam. The soft plastic domes come in three different sizes, and there's an additional size of foams.

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There's an adjustible neck split of sorts: Zagg slid three plastic beads onto the cable. It does the trick without creating a lot of resistance on the line, but looks out of place.

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The Z-buds end up with an average amount of customizability options, but we really would've liked to see some size differentiation.

 

**Cable Connectivity**     (5.26*)*


 

According to the Z-buds advertising, they sport a 'Premium length, tangle-free cord.' Since the Z-buds are 4 feet, 9 inches, we're guessing 'premium' means 'longer than average.' If you like a longer cord on your in-ears, the Z-buds are the premium choice. If you want the average length so you don't have extra slack in your pocket, then the Z-buds are a bit awkward.

**Portability**     (*8.31**)*


 

As mentioned above, the Z-buds have a slightly longer cord than average, making them a bit less portable than most in-ears. Of course, since they're in-ears they're still very portable.

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The three beads on the Z-buds cable can also help manage the cord a bit by keeping the left and right channels together. This works in theory, but in practice the beads seem to slide around a bit. Sometimes they cause more trouble than they solve: they create loops, which promote tangling.

The Z-buds also come with a felt pouch, which is marginally helpful if you don't have a pocket to shove the headphones into.

pouch.jpg

**Maintenance**     (*4.50**)*


 

Typically most in-ears will have removable sleeves for their ear buds. A select few include disposible wax nozzle guards. The Z-buds are the first we've reviewed that allow for a degree of disassembly. This is a great feature, since it lets you get at the trouble spots: the remote & mic and the volume control.

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The anatomy of a remote & mic.

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An autopsy of the volume control.

 

 

**Other Features**     (*7.50**)*


Battery Dependency

The Z-buds don't reaquire batteries to operate. Since batteries throw a lifespan into the equation, they're annoying. We therefore award points to headphones that don't use batteries.

Remote and Mic

The remote and mic will let you take phone calls, or issue simple commands to a media player. The control pendant is also located at a good height.

Volume Control

We the volume control functions and we like it's placement in theory. The dial turns too easily, however, which led to our pockets dictating the volume of our playback more than we did. We wish the dial was a bit tougher to turn, or that it had some kind of lock implemented.

**Design**


The Z-buds and Apple headphones are about the same in terms of durability and aesthetics.

**Sound Quality**


The Apple headphones have a much more even frequency response overall. Both headphones get somewhat erratic towards the 10kHz mark.

This Z-buds' graph is what a distortion graph should look like. The Apple headphones' graph looks like someone pulled the paper away as we were drawing it. If you're looking for low distortion, don't get in-ears that balance outside your ear and just kind of point towards it.

The Z-buds are less balanced than the Apple headphones.

**Isolation**


This is another obvious comparison. The Z-buds block some outside sounds. The Apple headphones don't.

**Comfort**


While we thought both headphones were close in terms of overall comfort, they have very different fits. The Z-buds fit inside your ear canal. With some sleeves they fit deeply into your ear. If you think this sounds uncomfortable, chances are it will be, so you should stick to the other sleeves. If you just want things to stay out of your ears entirely, the Apple headphones are a better choice.

**Verdict**


The Z-buds are a decent upgrade for packaged in Apple headphones. They provide a remote & mic as well as a volume control, plus better overall audio quality. They also have the advantage of actually fitting in your ear, which should help them stay in place.

**Design**


Both sets of headphones are pretty plain. The MM 50 iPs have a classy design to them that may or may not be visible while you're wearing them, and the Z-buds have a colorful cord. The MM 50 iPs have a weird Achilles Heel situation at their plug, while the Z-buds have the potential for internal wire twist-ups. We think the Z-buds are probably slightly more durable overall, even though the way their in-line accessories are manufactured makes them seem a bit cheap.

**Sound Quality**


The Z-buds' frequency response is like an exaggerated version of the MM 50 iPs' response. Both have a boost in the bass, although the Z-buds don't have their channels quite in sync.

Neither channel shows much distortion.

The MM 50 iPs have much more even tracking.

**Isolation**


The MM 50 iPs can block out a slightly more noise overall; the higher the green line in the graph below, the more sound is blocked.

**Comfort**


We thought the MM 50 iPs were a pretty comfortable pair of headphones from the get-go. If you're used to in-canal headphones, or you use the Z-buds' soft plastic sleeves, the headphones will be comfort equivalents.

**Verdict**


The Z-buds don't have the audio quality or isolation of the MM 50 iPs, but the differences aren't staggering. The Z-buds, in theory, should be cheaper than the MM 50 iPs, making them about the same value. Since the MM 50 iPs have been out so long, however, their price has dropped dramatically. Overall, the MM 50 iPs are the better headphones.

**Design**


We thought the Turbines had a bit more aesthetic flair, but have a slightly less durable design overall. They lack good cord protection, and if anything gets in the grooves on the back, it'd be a pain to clean out.

**Sound Quality**


Similar frequency response graphs here, only the Z-buds have more extreme shifts.

Though the Turbines have more distortion overall, it wouldn't bother most listeners.

The Turbines' tracking is more even overall.

**Isolation**


The Turbines block out significantly more noise after the 1kHz mark.

**Comfort**


The Turbines and Z-Buds are of equal comfort overall. The one problem we had with the Turbines was they slowly dislodged over time.

**Verdict**


Although the Turbines have style, the Z-buds end up having similar audio quality for a smaller investment.

**Design**


The Shure headphones are far, far more durable than the Z-buds. They have a modular cord, meaning you can replace the lower half of the cord easily. It also means you can add in-line accessories, like a remote and mic or volume switch.

**Sound Quality**


The Z-buds and SE115s have the same overall trends in their frequency response.

Neither set of headphones suffer from distortion.

The SE115s have a more even tracking result.

**Isolation**


The SE115s isolate far better than the Z-buds.

**Comfort**


We thought both headphones were approximately the same level of comfort. Both have a good array of sleeves to choose from.

**Verdict**


While they performed about as well on our audio quality tests, if you're looking for durability or isolation, the Shure headphones are your best bet. The Z-buds, on the other hand, are a better option for those on a budget.

Meet the tester

Mark Brezinski

Mark Brezinski

Senior Writer

@markbrezinski

Mark Brezinski is a senior writer with seven years of experience reviewing consumer tech and home appliances.

See all of Mark Brezinski's reviews

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We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.

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