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Future Sonics Atrio Earphones

I spend a lot of time in earphones, or should I say, they spend a lot of time in me. I've been on a lose-weight-slash-get-healthy kick for about nine months now. The dead of winter found me hardwired to what would otherwise be the mindless machinations of an elliptical machine that even a hamster would eventually find boring were it not for an iPod (for me, not sure how the hamster would feel). Now that the New England spring has sprung, I can get back to the more exhilarating activity of running America's roadways while under the influence of endorphins and my own personal soundtrack. I know running under the influence (of music) sounds dangerous as you forge ahead against traffic, but I've only been car tagged five times in hundreds of miles of jogging, and to be fair, two of those incidents were probably my fault.

Unlike the Shure and Etymotic earphones I've used (and abused) in the past, Future Sonics Atrio earphones use a single driver to reproduce all frequencies. With a claimed response from 18 Hz to 20 kHz, the proprietary MG5pro do produce the most prodigious bass of any earphones I've tried. If bass is all you're after, the Atrio is your EZ-Pass ticket to happiness. But there's much more at work here.

Timbre, something that's hard to get right with little drivers, seems to be very coherent and natural across the frequency bands. There is no tizziness here except at very high levels that have no business being reproduced anywhere near your delicate eardrums. The Atrio are very efficient, i.e. sensitive, and have no trouble being as (safely) loud as you want before pegging the needle on your portable music player.

I've noticed full range speakers that have extended bass also do a better job of setting up a believable soundstage all around. The Atrio have that ability as well. With your eyes shut (only on the elliptical, not on the road), the Atrio have a strong center image that's then evenly spread across the virtual soundstage. Most earphones tend to cluster the sound to the right or the left, but the Future Sonics Atrio seems to have overcome this limitation nicely. Another thing most earphones do is place their soundstage development directly between your left and right ear, imaginatively, where as the Atrio at times somehow manages to get the soundstage in front of you. Not as much as a pair speakers that stand twelve feet in front of me in my listening room, but still, they definitely project to the front. They have depth as well, front to back, the kind that would be useful if you listened to classical recordings in picking out the layering of the strings, horns and percussion.

Practical matters intrude here. The case work for each of the Atrios is very light plastic, but it is bulky. I used the technique of wrapping the chord over my ears and then inserting the buds. For the most part, they held well, but I found the silicone "pagoda" style inserts (all three sizes) didn't work particularly well for me, slipping out too often. I switched to the dense deformable foam variety I've generally avoided in the past because they tend get ripe pretty quick. Future Sonics includes two sizes, so try them both, compressing them with your fingers when inserting them, and they'll expand and tighten in place. Comparing their fit and ability to stay securely in place to the competition, I'd place them better than the Etymotics, but not as good as the Shure. So if you do a lot of sweating when you work out like I do, they'll loosen up, and on a few cases, I pulled the buds out and the foam didn't come along for the ride. Careful you don't push them in trying to pull them out!

The chord is the best, least microphonic of any I've tried. No chaffing noises as it works against your body, whether you are walking, running or hooked to a hamster wheel used to generate electricity. Seems like a little thing, and not even worthy of mention if all you're going to use these for are listening to music while sitting on a plane, but a noisy chord is an annoyance.

Of course, reliability – what can I say. Like all manufacturers, Future Sonics says the Atrio's shouldn't be exposed to moisture. If by moisture they mean the torrents of sweat that come pouring off my head almost precisely 1.18 miles into any run, then yes, I'm in violation of the manufacturer's recommendation. So be it. For $199, I still expect the Atrio's will give me a few years of trouble free service.

In case you've never heard of them, Future Sonics isn't some also ran that is jumping into the profitable earphone market. They've been making professional in-ear monitoring for musicians for years and you can even upgrade to custom inserts for your Atrio if you wish. They offer good sound isolation, comparable with other in-ear phones (with a claimed 26 db of ambient noise rejection), but custom fitting would probably give you the best results.

So if you've skipped down here for the verdict, the Atrio are definitely "two plugs up" providing texture and depth, a natural frequency response (not tilted up) and enough bass to satisfy when you're getting pumped up. I'd love to tell you more, but I've gotta run!

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