Monster introduced its first in-ear headphones, "turbine," in November 2008. They promised me review units right away (they actually gave out units at their CES press conference, but ran out), but I finally got them last month. At CEDIA last week, Monster announced an even higher end model, "turbine Pro," so I thought I'd better get this review out of the way before the new ones come.
I have to admit, I had really low expectations. Monster claims that the turbines are the best headphones on the market. However, Monster's CEO, Noel Lee, is given to hyperbole and self-congratulation - his press conferences are like revival meetings, complete with applause for minor things like swiveling HDMI adapters. (OK, those were pretty useful, but I'm a professional devices analyst, I'm not clapping like an idiot for your accessories, thank you very much.). My experience with mainstream brands' in-ear headphones has been mixed. Bose's $99 in-ear headphones are just plain awful (the best way to describe the sound is tepid; their over-the-ear noise canceling models are much better), while Apple's are pretty good (not as good as high end models, but a bargain at $79).
I took Monster at its word and tested the $149 turbines both against two similar priced products from Shure and etymotic (Shure's e3c's and etymotic's ER-4P, which are ~$179 each) and two with much higher price tags: Shure's SE530 (~$450), and Ultimate Ears triple.fi 10 pro (~$375).
The turbines have some issues, but overall they hold their own. Compared to my aging Shure e3c's the turbines sound richer and have better bass. They actually made the Shure's sound so thin that I wonder if the Shure's haven't held up to the abuse I've put them through over the years (lawn mowing, gyms, subways, buses, and planes). The etymotics stood up much better to the turbines, but the turbines sound a bit more dynamic, and appear to be more durable. One key that made comparison harder: it appears that the turbines have higher sensitivity than the etymotics. In other words, they play much louder. Louder sounds better (until you go deaf), and it can be hard to level match headphones precisely. Still, I did my best to A/B tracks at the same volume, and while the etymotics are terrific, the Monsters sounded livelier.
Where the turbines fall short is in noise isolation, functional design, and low bass. Shure's SE530's still stand out with the most neutral sound, tapered foam earplugs that do a much better job of blocking outside noise than Monster's flimsy plastic flanges, and a modular design that allows you to adapt the headphones to different cord lengths, microphones, and controls. Ultimate Ears triple.fi 10 pro has much better bass, a similar exciting sound as the turbines with less distortion, and tapered foam earplugs.
So are Monster's turbines [actual quote from their website:] "The World's Best Sounding In-Ear Headphones?" Hardly. But they are definitely one of the better choices at $149. If Monster throws in some foam earplugs in the package and creates a modular cord system, it will have a real winner.