Review: Phiaton BT 100 NC earphones pack plenty of features in a portable package

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Gizmag review for the Phiaton BT 100 NC earphones(Credit: Stanley Goodner/Gizmag.com)

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Over the past few years, California-based Phiaton has earned much recognition for a headphone lineup that embodies modern styling, quality audio, and tends to pack in more features than the competition. Combined with very affordable price-points, it’s easy to understand their popularity. We check in with Phiaton’s all-new BT 100 NC earphones to see if they up the ante for mobile-friendly convenience and all-around use.

Design & Connectivity

The Phiaton BT 100 NC's are a pair of neckband-style in-ear headphones (basically earbuds), which is nothing new form factor-wise. But what makes these stand out from the pack is the Bluetooth 4.0 with aptX support as well as ANC (active noise cancelling) – and the NFC pairing, IPX4 sweat-/water-resistance, vibration notifications, and built-in microphone for hands-free calling are nice feature additions, too.

These earphones are made primarily of very lightweight plastic wrapped around the ends of a smooth, flexible band. Although the plastic makes the unit feel a little on the cheap side, it makes sense for maintaining lighter weight with water-resistance, two ideal properties for a piece of audio tech sitting about the neck. The hands-free button on the left arm also doubles as as power on/off, and the play/pause button on the right arm doubles to activate Bluetooth pairing mode. The volume rocker, which also serves double-duty for track control, and the ANC switch are located on the inside of the left arm in easy reach, while a covered micro USB port located on the outside is used for either charging or connecting audio devices.

When not in use, the earphones tuck neatly into the front storage openings. The hold is firm, but sometimes requires a bit of wiggling to stick them in. The audio cables are thin with moderate protection at the connection points. While the BT 100 NC's are far from being considered rugged, it has no problems withstanding the rigors of physical workouts or daily casual wear. Just be sure to throw it on the top of your other gear in gym bags, backpacks, or briefcases.

The Phiaton BT 100 NC's have a very quick startup and connection time, with announcements accompanying the various states of power and connectivity. Although the female voice sounds a little hollow and veiled, she'll do. One interesting feature added to the unit is the way it vibrates to alert for incoming calls or when you’ve stepped out of Bluetooth range of your connected device. Depending on your perspective, this is either convenient or a touch annoying.

NFC pairing with the Phiaton BT 100 NC's is easy if you know where the NFC area on your smartphone is. If you’re unsure or if it’s too much hassle, regular Bluetooth pairing works just as well. The wireless range is indeed good for the full 33 feet (10 m), although it can start to get dicey after the 26-ft (8-m) point, depending on what may be in the way (your physical self counts). But even when you have your connected smartphone/tablet in-hand, the Phiaton BT 100 NC still suffers the very rare spit/click or momentary skip while music is playing.

The earphones come a special micro-to-USB audio cable, a USB charge cable, additional color-coded ear tips, and an extra set of cable clips. That audio cable is ideal for long trips, where the battery could die out before you're done jamming to some tunes. Just plug in and keep the music going without the need for wireless connectivity.

Comfort

Phiaton's default ear buds/tips should fit the average ear quite well. They're snug, feeling similar to the Phiaton MS 100 BA's in terms of how soft and flexible they are. By comparison, the BT 100 NC's don't quite achieve the same solid seal and in-ear grip of the MS 100 BA's, likely due to the shorter barrel-insert length. Despite the outward appearance of bulk, the BT 100 NC's have only a minimal amount of push against the ear tragus and there's no forceful pressure against the inner ear canal either. Even after hours of wearing, the fatigue stays at a favorable minimum, making the BT 100 NC's quite comfortable to wear over extended periods of time.

The neck band is springy, requiring little force to hold apart before reverting to its neutral state when slack. This soft flexibility can be held back by a shirt or jacket collar. So if you're sensitive to that claustrophobic, choking sensation of something encircling the neck, you'll like how the Phiaton BT 100 NC's keep it open and breathable. When resting against a bare neck, the band sort of feels like a necklace in that lightweight, non-abrasive manner. Either way, it's easy to forget about wearing this device when focusing on other things (e.g. yardwork, jogging).

So long as you're not bending, tilting, or bouncing to an extreme (jogging might be the cut-off point), the BT 100 NC's stay in place well enough. The ear buds do a better job than the band, since they’re likely to tug up when you turn your head. Adding a little slack to the line by adjusting the clips is the easy fix, resulting in a fit that needs little corrective fiddling.

Audio Quality

When on and paired, the Phiaton BT 100 NC's emit a very slight Bluetooth hissing while audio is active. This is heard most after hitting pause on playing music, lasting for about three seconds before ending in a soft fade. Unlike many a Bluetooth device in the same class, the electronic noise generated by the BT 100 NC's neither scales with volume nor ends with a harsh "click" sound, so Phiaton has done well to keep this hiss minimal.

The BT 100 NC's get another thumbs up for having zero delay when music starts to play. You're not going to miss the first second or two of any song, which is a common byproduct of sub-par electronic components. In fact, users can enjoy mobile games and watch streaming movies without having that off-second delay throwing audio and video out of sync. The BT 100 NC's let you stay wireless to your heart's content.

With max volume on these earphones, a smartphone's volume can rise to about 65 percent before distortion starts to trickle in. After that point the distortion quickly amplifies as the audio climbs, affecting the highs, mids, and lows alike with grain and a washed-out bleaching of sound. The distortion also develops harsh vocal consonants, sibilance, and muddy lows. So while the BT 100 NC's can compete against noisy environments, keeping them to average/moderate listening levels will maintain the best audio quality.

The same applies to sound leaking from the earphones. Unless you’re blowing out your eardrums, no one close by will know that music is playing. Even when the volume is comfortably loud, someone would have to be sitting next to you and seriously paying attention to pick up on it. The noise isolation of the Phiaton BT 100 NC's is also pretty good. Even without music playing, simply putting the buds in diminishes a lot of ambient sound, so people may have to raise their voices in order to catch your attention, music or not.

The Phiaton BT 100 NC's sound ever-so slightly distant (especially if you’ve previously listened to the Phiaton MS 100 BA model). It's almost as if you can hear the music traveling a short distance through the electronics themselves. This aspect does vary slightly from track to track, oftentimes becoming almost nonexistent. But when you do hear it, it tends to make the music sound a little boxy. Other than that, the presentation of music on the soundstage is normal, being neither laid back nor forward towards the listener. The stage depth is ok, though maybe a bit on the shallow side of average.

The left and right edges of the soundstage are pleasantly wide, going just past the ears. While the movement from the extreme left and right is lively, the area in between doesn’t seem as finely developed and articulated. Despite the space for movement, music from the Phiaton BT 100 NC's sounds on the cramped side of cozy. The imaging isn’t quite as focused or able to provide elements more than an average amount of room to flex and breathe.

Vocal reproduction is likely the shining star of these earphones. Voices come out clear, forward, and with a good level of detail. Instrumental tone is pretty good, too. It’s easy to pick out the characteristic sounds of real wood, metal, wind, and identify if they were struck, plucked, or brushed. Notes fire off quickly, and although they may overlap some, they don’t run into each other end for end. Stringed instruments come off as sweet, and while they’re a little bit on the warm side, it's in a fun, blended, musical kind of way.

Although crisp, cymbals and hi-hats often sound tinny, sometimes "toy-like", which is expected. But when those bits of sizzle appear within the music, they tend to be at the very end of a crash or hit. Many headphones sizzle the entire sound of cymbals, which completely throws off the tone. The Phiaton BT 100 NC's do well to make tinny highs sound more like music and less like distracting noise.

The midrange reproduction of the BT 100 NC's is only ok. Vocals are strong and consistent – arguably the best part of the mids – and instruments are pleasantly warm and energetic. But the edges lack definition, most often during bursts of music and/or complex parts of a song. If the genre of music you listen to is light and not dense with sound, the "fuzzing" of edges is less obvious. The mid and low-mid ranges of the Phiaton BT 100 NC's can come off as coarse and grainy. Simple plucking of guitar strings sounds fine, but it’s when chords and complexity come into play that the instruments start to sound thin and bloated. On top of that, heavier parts of a song can have instruments exhibiting excess growl and not enough musical aspect.

The Phiaton BT 100 NC’s lows are also only ok. The best of the lows lie at the top end for characteristic sound, but with a touch of warmth from the mid-bass to round it out. When you do get those big bass hits, the resulting thumps are good and not overemphasized. A hearty volume bump with the right song might let one catch a bit of sub-bass impact. But it’s not recommended, as such hits through increased volume come off as broad and muddled. The response and edge definition of the lows are tighter at the top, quickly losing their punchy aspect as they go deeper, sometimes lingering a bit too long in the decay.

Overall, the lows seem to work in quiet support of the mids, even if they may sound like a one-note rumble in the background. Sometimes the lows sound plain terrified, almost like they’re barely present with respect to the highs and mids. Given the middling pitch and sub-average nuance of the BT 100 NC’s low-end spectrum, it’s probably best that the highs and mids shine a little brighter

Active Noise Cancelling

Phiaton has certainly upped its ANC game by a lot. Compared to its older headphone models, such as the Chord MS 530's, the ANC within the BT 100 NC's is better and cleaner – with emphasis on the clean part, because too often does one find headphones with overly-aggressive active noise cancelling that adds more noise than it subtracts.

The "white noise" from the Phiaton BT 100 NC's comes off as a gentle hiss, yet can completely eliminate the moderate roar of a home’s running air conditioning. Even if one is sitting nearby multiple vents. Close to a fridge? Quiet. Washer and dryer? Muted. The BT 100 NC's have the kind of ANC that makes one realize just how much noise life makes when you think it’s too quiet.

Like most headphones featuring ANC, the Phiaton BT 100 NC's put a hush on only the lower frequencies. Higher-pitched sounds and/or loud bursts still make it through, although muffled. While there are headphones with better ANC ability, they’re also most likely larger in size and/or greater in price. And the best part is you don’t even need to turn the unit on to use the ANC. When you want silence but no music, just pop the buds in your ears and flip the switch.

The Verdict

The Phiaton BT 100 NC's are definitely feature packed, which is how this device creates competitive appeal. The neckband style feels natural and easy to wear, the battery life is excellent, and the call quality is great on both ends of the conversation. While the BT 100 NC's may not have Jabra- or Plantronics-quality for hands-free talking, they certainly do well for being priced around the US$100 mark. They're compact, comfortable to wear, have fantastic ANC, and boast wireless Bluetooth that’s good for games and movies alike.

If audio quality is your primary focus, the BT 100 NC's would be considered somewhere between sub-average and average, at best. There’s only so much the teeny hardware can accomplish (yes, even with the Bluetooth aptX in mind), so don’t expect music to rock your socks off. The highs and mids are the strongest, with the lows flagging behind in a variable kind of way. Sometimes they’re present, sometimes they sort of check out.

But when you consider the convenience and features with respect to the $100 price tag, it’s easy to overlook the average-sounding audio of the Phiaton BT 100 NC earphones. This is not what one would choose for chilling about the house, listening to favorite tunes – the company has its own better options for that. But for trips, travel, sweaty workouts, noisy environments, or any combination of all that, the BT 100 NC's are worthy of consideration.

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