Give or take the odd fashion brand - I'm looking at you Beats - you get what you pay for in the headphones world. You may balk at the amounts charged by the likes of Sennheiser for a pair of cans, but they are guaranteed to offer superior audio- and build-quality. But when you consider that your smartphone, tablet or MP3 player is likely to come with a free pair of headphones, you have to ask the question: what's the point of a £24.99 set of headphones? See also: Group test: what's the best headphones?
In the case of the i-box Flats the answer is simple: better than basic audio, decent build, stylish design and excellent noise isolation. They are also comfortable and keep what you are listening to from your fellow commuters. In short: the i-box Flats offer a lot more than £25-worth of extra value over free earbuds, even if they can't compete with true high-end headphones. Here's why.
i-box Flats review - build, design
I'm conscious that I have already mentioned Dr Dre's 'Beats' brand of headphones, but I'm about to do it again. The i-box Flats ear-buds have a red and black livery, much like the Beats stylings. i-box describes the look thus: "The Flats look like headphone royalty, sporting a red and black colour scheme which goes with just about any & every outfit you can muster. The high quality machined metal casing refracts the quality ethos from your fingers direct to your iris."
In human words this equates to a striking-looking red and black colour scheme in which the cable is red, and everything else black apart from the grey silicon earbud covers. These are not discreet headphones, but if you want to be noticed you're in the right place.
Build is good - critical for a pair of cans to be used on the go or in the gym. The cable is flat and fat - unlike the gossamer thin circular wires of many inexpensive headphone cables.
The cable is 1.2m long and the flat and wide nature of it makes it resistant to tangles. You get a selection of three sets of different sized ear buds. The active components that sit in your ear are almost entirely made of lightweight metal. It's impossible to say for sure, but these headphones feel built to last.
There's an inline mic and phone controller, too. The 3.5mm jack is gold-plated, and there's a bundled carry case.
i-box Flats review - comfort
How comfortable are in-ear headphones will differ from person to person. As mentioned earlier the i-box Flats do come with multiple silicon earbud tips so that you have a decent chance of finding the correct fit for you. One thing we did notice was that the in-ear part of the i-box Flats are longer than the average earbud. In use this is fine - they are well-balanced so although the earbuds may stick out a little, they don't feel insecure.
We did have a bit of trouble in the gym, however. Trying to use the treadmill with the i-box Flats in my ear was uncomfortable, and not just because of my paunch. The jerking motion made it feel as though the i-box Flats were going to drop out. It was uncomfortable, too: like something heavy pulling down on my lugs. It's only fair to point out that when out pounding the streets with my smartphone in a sleeve pocket there was no problem at all.
i-box Flats review - audio quality
As we said at the outset, you get what you pay for in the world of audio. With a 10mm driver, 16ohm impedance, a frequency response of 20–20,000Hz and 97dB sensitivity, we're very much in the lower ranks of audio excellence. What this means in practice is that the i-box Flats offer a decent but not outstanding listening experience.
For fairness we tested them against the free earphones provided with the HTC One, as well as against other inexpensive headphones. In both cases the i-box Flats is a winner: bass isn't as prominent as one would expect these days, and these earbuds are none the worse for it. We found the sound well-rounded, with decent detail in the upper reaches.
Listening to rock and rap music we found everything clear and punchy. And we could turn things right up without any distortion. Talk radio and podcasts feel intimate and warm.
i-box Flats review - noise isolation
One area in which the i-box Flats excel is noise isolation, both in terms of the listening experience and that of your fellow commuters. When out running we found the noise-isolation too good: when listening to loud music we were regularly dicing with death as articulated lorries crept up without us hearing.
And we love the fact that we can listen to whatever we like without needing to feel embarressed in front of our fellow train- or tube passengers. Even at very high levels of volume nothing could be heard on the outside.
i-box Flats review - bottom line
A striking design, decent build quality and reasonable audio. For £24.99 the i-box Flats offer a good upgrade over free headphones without being close to challenging high-end audio kit.