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Kevin Hunt: Review: Sol Republic Master Tracks Headphones (And Nokia Lumia 1020)

Kevin Hunt - The Electronic Jungle

The Electronic Jungle

5:58 PM EDT, September 6, 2013

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Sol Republic, the headphone brand swimmer Michael Phelps wore everywhere except underwater at the 2012 Olympics, has gotten itself in deep with the new Master Tracks.

It's moving upscale, from the original $99.99 on-ear Tracks to the $199.99 over-ear Master Tracks with three-button remote and microphone. It's also moving further into the plodding, thud-thud-thud bass that has become the signature of high-priced, rap-inspired headphones.

These are not, ahem, neutral-sounding headphones. They are, however, extremely comfortable and look better than they sound. The Master Tracks arrive like a ready-to-assemble Lego project: The individual pieces include two of Sol Republic's X3 Sound Engine ear cups, a headband made of a FlexTech polymer that the company calls virtually indestructible and the 4-foot cabling that includes music and iPhone controls.

It's not so much a construction project as an invitation for headbangers to test the headband's indestructibility or to customize. The headphones are available in gunmetal, white or the Electro Blue that I tried. Additional bands, in Fluoro Red or Progressive Purple, are available for $39.99 each.

This DIY project takes seconds. The ear cups slide on to the headband and somehow hold their position no matter where you move them.

The SonicSoft ear cushions are as supple as a Tempur-Pedic, though less dense. The top-of-the-head section of the headband is also cushioned. So far, Sol Republic wins medals for comfort and style.

For music, listeners will notice dominant, sometimes overbearing lower frequencies, a soft but engaging midrange and little detail in the higher frequencies. That formula works for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' "Thrift Shop" (featuring Wanz), any other rap and most modern rock. Elsewhere, the imbalance quickly becomes tiresome.

Joao Gilberto's "Joao Voz e Violao," a solo album from the Brazilian performer translated as "Joao Voice and Acoustic Guitar," plays more like "Voice and Acoustic Guitar and Acoustic Bass." The guitar's resonance is artificially enhanced so much by the Master Tracks' X3 drivers that it sometimes sounds as if an acoustic bass player has jumped in.

When played through the Bowers & Wilkins P3 on-ear headphones (also $199.99), with much less bass but better balance overall, Gilberto again sounds as if he's playing unaccompanied. The acoustic bass has left the room.

You can reduce the bass using the equalization settings on an iPhone, iPad or iPod, but these headphones will only frustrate listeners of music that lacks a purposely bottom-heavy studio mix.

Loudspeaker manufacturers do the same thing by shaping the sound to suit an audience. There's no mistaking Sol Republic's audience.

Lumia 1020

Nokia's Lumia 1020 isn't really a smartphone. It's a $300 point-and-shoot camera with a Windows Phone 8 device thrown in.

In the technical equivalent of shaping an Elvis sculpture that fits on a pinhead, Nokia has built a 41-megapixel camera into the Lumia 1020 ($299.99 with a two-year agreement). That's more megapixels than most point-and-shoots, even DSLR models.

But it's a phone. (Of course.) Where would this camera be, for instance, without the smartphone's Pro Cam app that releases its full powers: a ringed slider that looks like a cross-section from a tree trunk, with manual controls for white balance, focus distance, ISO, shutter speed and exposure compensation.

Only in Pro Cam mode can the user take the highest-resolution pictures (which is actually closer to 38 megapixels). The resulting files, because they're so big at about 10 megabytes, are transferable to a computer only with a USB cable or by uploading to AT&T's cloud storage. Unfortunately, there's no way to move them by Wi-Fi.

What about emailing and Twitter and Facebook postings? Pro Cam mode simultaneously creates a more manageable 5-megapixel image.

The Lumia 1020, which has a 4.5-inch AMOLED display, Xenon flash and 2 gigabytes of RAM, shoots everything in high-resolution in Pro Cam mode. So the user can make zoom adjustments after snapping the photo.

The Lumia 1020 is a dynamic smartphone. (It also shoots hi-res video and makes stereo audio recordings.) The baby bump on the back with the Carl Zeiss optics? That's the most potent camera you'll find in a smartphone.

khunt@tribune.com

The details

What: Sol Republic Master Tracks headphones

Price: $199.99

Good: Comfortable, good looks, exchangeable headbands, heavy (and loose) bass, if you're a fan.

Not so good: Overpowering bass (if you're not a fan), restricted highs, somewhat soft midrange.

Information: solrepublic.com