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Can Flips headphones double as a party-inducing speaker system?

TV ad claims the headphones can, so we put them to the test

Published: May 19, 2014 06:00 AM

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During a recent binge of late-night TV watching, I saw a commercial by a company called Flips Audio for a product with an intriguing concept: a set of headphones that transformed into dance-inducing powered speakers just by flipping the ear cups outward. At least that's what the company's video said.

I knew we had to get a pair and put them to the test. What we found is that while the Flips did work as headphones and speakers, they didn't exactly rock our world in either use.

We ordered a set of Flips from Amazon for $120. (Flips are also available from a few online retailers, including Brookstone and Walmart, the latter selling them for less than $110.) If you buy direct from the Flips Audio site,you can take advantage of a try-before-you-buy offer that lets you sign up for a 30-day trial, initially paying only $15 for shipping and processing. If you don’t like the headphones, you can return them and get a refund, provided it's before the trial period ends. If you like them, keep them and you'll be billed the full amount.

The Flips can serve as headphones . . .

A black or white decision

The Flips are offered in black or white. We chose the latter, which has a white headband and white ear cups with orange circular accents surrounding a gray mirror "f" Flips logo. The black model has a black headband and ear cups with lime-green circular accents. Both models have a thin silver band around the perimeter of each ear cup and a cushion on the underside of the headband.

In addition to the headphones and an attractive white storage case with red accents, our package came with a “Bonus Pack.” That contained several accessories, including a cable with a microphone, several adapters, and a splitter. It’s not clear whether this was a limited-time promotion or if everyone gets these accessories with their purchase. The ear cups can fold so that they fit into the case for storage or travel.

The headphones we received are attractive, though the plastic ear-cup shells and headbands feel, well, plasticy, and the logo and accents are a bit cheap looking, especially compared to some of the more stylish (and admittedly pricier) on-ear and over-ear headphones in our headphone Ratings. The ear cups have fairly comfy ear cushions that provided a good fit and seal on my ears. The headphones have a rechargeable lithium ion battery; there's a small micro USB port on the left ear cup, and the headphones come with a USB cable for recharging. You can use the Flips as headphones if the battery runs out of juice, but they won't work as powered speakers.

Find the best model for your needs and budget with our headphone buying guide and Ratings.

. . . and as speakers.

The Flips have a closed, over-ear design that does a decent job of blocking out external sounds and also limits the amount of sound that escapes from the headphones into your environment. On the lower portion of the orange circle on the left ear cup is a small multipurpose LED light that acts as a status indicator: It blinks blue if the battery needs charging, glows red if the battery is charging, and shuts off completely when it's fully charged. A steady blue light means the headphone is playing in speaker mode, and when the light is purple—the blue and red lights are on—it's charging and playing in speaker mode. When no signal is detected, the headphones automatically shut off after six minutes to preserve the battery. Because of the location of the micro USB slot on the ear cup, I found I couldn't wear the headphones while they were charging.

The headphones works like any other stereo model in normal use, but flipping both ear cups outward kicks on a battery-powered amplifier, transforming the Flips into a set of amplified speakers. This happens only when the ear cups are fully rotated, so there's little chance that the amp will be engaged during headphone use, potentially damaging ears. Once the ear cups are flipped back in place for headphone use, the amplifier shuts down. This worked perfectly throughout several days of testing.

Sound quality

We tested the Flips as a headphone and as a portable powered speaker. Unfortunately, this is where the Flips let us down, as sound was only fair in each type of use: They weren't great headphones, and they weren't great speakers.

Tested as headphones, the overall sound was closed in, with compressed dynamics. The bass had good impact, but it was muddy and didn't go very deep. Midrange was very muffled, mid- and upper-treble were very rolled off, and lower treble was sizzly. The headphones have medium sensitivity, so they should provide satisfying volume levels when used with all but the lowest-powered portable audio devices.

As a portable speaker, perhaps the biggest issue was that the Flips began to distort quite noticeably when pushed to louder volume levels, less so when we backed off the volume. In speaker mode, the lower and mid bass was very rolled off, and bass in general had very little overall impact. Midrange was raspy, with a noticeable plastic resonance, and treble was sizzly, with a rolled off upper treble. The overall sound lacked fine detail and sounded very congested, and we found it didn't recover room ambience (a sense of the acoustic space in which a recording was made) very well.

In addition, stereo imaging disappeared if we were more than about 4 feet away from the speakers—not surprising, given that the speakers are only about 6 inches apart, though they are angled outward. As speakers, we think the Flips are best suited for closer listening, as they strain to provide a satisfying level of volume even in smaller rooms. Perhaps the company realizes this: The first commercial I saw was a guy walking into a party, flipping the headphones outward, and getting the whole room to rock. But the current commercial is set in an elevator.

Are we being a bit too harsh on the Flips? Not really, and certainly not any more than we are with any other set of headphones or speakers we test. Frankly, given their size and power, we didn't expect them to be great portable speakers. But we were disappointed that they didn't perform very well as headphones, especially since there are dozens of lower-priced models in our Ratings that offer better sound quality.

Bottom line

That's not to say we don't applaud the concept; we're just not fans of the execution. And that's not to say you might not be able to find a use for them. While I was checking out the headphones in my home one weekend, I was trying to learn a guitar part for a coming band rehearsal. It was great being able to listen to the song via the headphones, and then flip the ear cups out so that I could hear the song and my guitar through the guitar amp at the same time. You may find some of your own uses where the convenience of having this capability outweighs the limited sound quality of the headphones and speakers.

During my career as a reviewer, I've found that products that try to do more than one thing often don't do well at any of them. Unfortunately, that was our experience with the Flips. If the company decides to continue with the concept, we hope that at the very least the next generation of Flips offers better sound quality when used as headphones. Then, the speaker capability would just be icing on the cake—and something we might actually dance about.

—James K. Willcox

   

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