Low Cost, High Value, the $25 Xiaomi Piston 2

Though little-known in the US, China-based Xiaomi has taken the domestic smartphone industry by storm in just four short years. Seeing as the company has just passed Samsung to become China's #1 smartphone vendor (and 5th in the world without even venturing outside of Asia), this is a good time to take a look at their sole headphone product.

Following a year developing software and custom ROMs, Xiaomi launched their first Android-based smartphone in 2011, making a name for themselves by offering top-of-the-line hardware hundreds of dollars below the competition. A direct-to-consumer distribution strategy and non-traditional marketing are part of the formula, but the company also gained support for its policy of continuous improvement, soliciting feedback from fans and users of their products.

Thanks to a pair of generous Head-Fi.org members, I had the chance to see how the same approach works with a set of headphones by comparing the first and second generations of Xiaomi's Piston in-ear earphones.

Priced at $15 in China and about $25 once it gets stateside, the Piston is notable for several reasons. First, it features a 3-button inline remote designed for use with Android devices, whereas most headsets on the US market use 3-button Apple iOS remotes that have limited functionality with other operating systems. The Piston's remote has the same functions when used with my Google Nexus 5 as a set of Apple earbuds does with an iPhone or iPad, controlling phone calls, media playback, and volume. Functionality may vary by Android version and handset manufacturer, but it should work with most modern Android devices.

Second, the Piston does not look or feel like a $25 product. The design is extremely well thought-out. The compact acrylic box, for example, can double as a storage case while its paper sleeve unfolds into a user manual. The rubber tray is also a cable winder (and better-made than any other I've seen). Seemingly to underline how much Xiaomi have thought about the first impression their product leaves on its user, the tray and earphones have a faint chocolate aroma, ticking off four of the five senses in total.

The earphone itself is also impressive, with the finely ridged machined aluminum body showcasing nice attention to detail and solid construction.

There have been three versions of the earphones so far—the original Piston, sometimes referred to as the "1.0", is easily identified by its silver color and lack of rear vent. The Piston 2 is vented at the rear and gold-colored. A slightly updated version, referred to as the "iF Edition" (unofficially called the Piston 2.1) is identical to the 2.0 but comes with updated eartips and includes a shirt clip.

The incremental improvements that the Piston 2 shows over the original Piston make for a significantly better user experience. The Left/Right markings are much easier to see, there is virtually no driver flex, and the cable is no longer sheathed in cloth above the y-split, which makes the Piston 2 less tangle-prone and reduces cable noise.

The Xiaomi earphones are similar to other in-ears of similar design when it comes to the basics—cable noise (microphonics), isolation, and comfort in the ear. The housings are rather wide and have squared-off edges at the front, which may create pressure points for those with small outer ears but shouldn't be a problem for most users. The Piston can easily be worn either cable-down or over-the-ear style, thanks in part to the low positioning of the microphone.

With attention to design and packaging that is so unlike other Chinese brands, it would be understandable if Xiaomi didn't blow us away with sound, and with the first-gen Piston this happens to be the case. The newer one, however, is anything but average. Flip the page for sonic impressions.


avens's picture

What in-ear or portable headphone in general would you recommend at the $200-$250 price point...with a microphone?

Seems like an easy topic at first, but when I researched it seems there's so many complications these days that there are very few headphones available that offer good to great sound and convenience at the same time, in the form of all basic functions being compatible with your phone (Android in my case), no amp required, having a microphone is of the essence and hopefully three buttons. Weird, isn't it.

olc's picture

Can someone recommend a source for these that are not knockoffs? Apparently that's a real problem with these.

Impulse's picture

There's plenty of good options if you can settle for a one button remote, if you really must have a three button remote your choices will diminish by several orders of magnitude.

My Ety hf5 (three button but only one works on Android, same as 1 button hf3) were one of the better buys at their price point according to joker (at least they were a few years ago when I got them) and also one of the few with a button/mic at that price at that time...

You can always control volume with a single button by using an app like Headset Button Controller which lets you map extra shortcuts, like press and hold for volume (it sets it down to the minimum and ramps up until you let go).

Another alternative would be sourcing or making your own three button cable and pairing it with some of the portable headphones that take standard removable cables... V-Moda's M-80 or XS (highly acclaimed by Inner Fidelity) would be one option.

I've got the M-80 and even tho the one button remote never bothered me I still replace the stock cable often to use a shorter one when I pair them with a Bluetooth receiver clipped to my sleeve.

I'm actually looking to upgrade to the XS for the collapsible design, ever since the first M-100 leaks came out I said an M-80 with Cliqfold would be my ideal portable on ear headphone... Just gotta sell my M-80 first!

ljokerl's picture
3-button Android remotes are incredibly rare, which is part of what makes the Piston special. With a regular 1- or 3-button remote you have more options but still not too many. I would go with the Etymotic HF2 or HF3 for balanced sound and the RHA MA750i for enhanced bass. I'm still waiting for someone to sell a good-quality aftermarket MMCX headset cable to convert any of the current detachable-cable earphones into a proper headset.
tonylee5566's picture

get a check Genuine or fake Xiaomi Piston 2 Headphones knowledge guide ... Genuine xiaomi piston headphones, packaged beautifully detailed, without any flaws, you can check packaging materials, font color, headphones Metal housing. http://blog.nextbuying.com/how-to-buy-genuine-xiaomi-piston-2-headphones...

Downforce's picture

Wish I could. There's an earlier comment about the inset mesh screen on the ear tube on genuine ones, but obviously this can't be determined until they're received, so this seems to be a deal breaker re the Pistons.

The website http://www.xiaomiworld.com/ no longer works. The link to the Xiaomi English home page leads here: http://www.mi.com/en/ Perhaps this is a source for the genuine Pistons.

Impulse's picture

Sweet find joker, excellent review as always. I take it these are already a FotM at Head Fi? If they aren't they're bound to be...

Two questions, did anyone on Head Fi mention what EBay buyer they used? Would help in tracking them down... More to the point of the review, did I miss it or did you not mention what tips they come with?

Is it just the usual three sizes of silicons or what? I think you said on the first page the latest version come with different tips, but not what those are.

ednaz's picture

Just got my set, they're the second generation. Picked up on Amazon, where the vendor gives a really good piece of info... "if they're not over $20, they're probably fake, because of what they cost initially."

I just ran them through a bunch of my "take THAT, speakers or headphones" selections and these little earphones punch way, way above their weight. Jaco Pastorius' bass on Cotton Avenue; the bass on CSN's Dark Star - both have been champs at sorting out blat from bass, and every bit of bass musicality came through clean, clear, and precise. That open back is clearly at work there - I listened to a couple of things alternating between covering the opening on the back with my fingers, then letting it be open, it makes a huge, huge difference.

Listened to some Cubaton, some samba, a little new folk, some be-bop, and I'm completely amazed at the sound quality. Yes, a little U shaped, but not much, voices didn't sound veiled. Most impressive to me was imaging and size of soundstage. At this price I'd expect the whole band to be in my head, but instead they were all around me - I could point to each player.

Put on some binaural recordings and had one of those "binaural moments" where I sat up sharply in my chair thinking I heard someone whispering in my front hall, and I'm the only one home... then remembered that same moment had messed with my head before, but only with my CIEMs and my best headphones.

They are lovely, the packaging is very smart and well done. The silicon tips don't fit me well - the large were too loose, but I think part of that is because they're soo small that you're stuffing the metal into your ear to get a seal. Need to work on that a bit. But for what they cost - even not considering cost - these are going to be heavily used when I don't want to use my CIEMs.

Hugely impressed.

ljokerl's picture
long before I got wind of them, in the original iteration. The first generation wouldn't have impressed me much, though, so I'm glad I got to try the 2.0 right away. This was the eBay seller I was recommended for legit Pistons: http://www.ebay.com/itm/380861393335 There are just the standard 3 sizes of tips on all versions, just different quality from what I understand.
Long time listener's picture

I have both the Xiaomi and the Philips TX1, and to my ears, the TX1 provides a more pleasing balance overall. And I think reference to Tyll's measurements shows why.

Even though the levels of bass--relative to treble at around 10kHz--are identical, the Xiaomi sounds like it has "too much bass." The TX1 doesn't, however, because the levels of the low bass and the midrange have been lifted slightly. The TX1's balance sounds natural and without undue bass emphasis due to this slight shift.

The TX1 is also just a tiny shade lower in level in the treble just below 10 kHz, which I believe makes it slightly more forgiving in that area as opposed to the more treble-forward Xiaomi.

I think the Xiaomi is amazing at its price, but if I had to pick another at that price to listen to, it would definitely be the Philips TX1. More solid low bass, more pleasing treble, better balanced overall.

The TX1 also has a nozzle that is shaped slightly differently than the S1 or S2 nozzles, making it more snug-fitting in the ear and providing a better seal.

Long time listener's picture

Having said the above, I've gone back and forth on these ever since I got them. Listening again to the Xiaomis, I'm not sure if the TX1s are clearly superior. Both have some inevitable flaws, given their price, but both are pretty outstanding.

And maybe I'm just a late-blooming basshead, but I'm not inclined to say that either one has too much bass.

Khairil's picture

Can't choose between the two, the Xiaomi Piston 2 or the Sony MH1C. I am leaning towards Piston at the moment, but concern about the isolation, comfort level and performance differences. Can someone compare them two?

ljokerl's picture
I've used both quite a bit and have come to the conclusion that I prefer the sound of the MH1C but can't recommend it over the Piston because of how much the flat, rubberized j-cable of the Sony bothers me. The MH1C has less mid-bass and sounds tighter and more controlled at the low end. It's smoother and more refined up top, too. The Piston is bassier in the conventional sense, suffers from a bit of bass bleed/bloat, and has a more energetic top end. The presentation of the MH1C is more laid-back and it is less sensitive by a good margin.
Long time listener's picture

"I prefer the sound of the MH1C but can't recommend it over the Piston because of how much the flat, rubberized j-cable of the Sony bothers me..."

Isn't it all about the sound? I myself have never been bothered by any aspect of cables, including microphonics, for a second, and can't imaging why everyone is so concerned with that stuff. It seems bizarre to me to recommend a worse-sounding IEM over a better sounding one over cable concerns.

And after another day of listening, I do find that its the Philips TX1s that are staying in my ears, rather than the Xiaomis.

Impulse's picture

Microphonics can kinda ruin the experience for anyone that actually uses IEM while doing anything but sitting down calmly... What good is it if you can't hear it over all the rustling cable noise?

I always appreciated the way joker values the overall experience and not just SQ, but I use my IEM mostly while doing twenty other things so...

Long time listener's picture

Yes, you're right.I listen almost exclusively sitting at a desk or in bed, so microphonics will be less of a problem for me. But based on my experience in other situations, it still won't ever matter much to me.

I too appreciate Joker's reviews, here and on Theheadphonelist, and they've helped me find one or two IEMs I really like. But I also hear things very, very differently than he does (and I can't be the only one), and one or two of his recommendations have also been disasters for me--the Philips S1 being a case in point. Further, I strongly disagree that the Philips TX2 is better than the TX1, since I feel the TX1 is the only one of their four IEMs where they solved the problem of harsh treble, and it's the only one of the four I like. I also think it's subtly better than the Xiaomi.

So I hate to see his word taken as some kind of final, objective description of what's best and what's inferior, and I think second opinions are important. As someone who has several decades of experience listening critically to sound equipment and headphones, I like to get my two cents in.

Seth195208's picture

Microphonics in a cable isn't about sound?

SleepModezZ's picture

I'm a fan of the sound of the MH1C. Still, I won't use them them. The heavy asymmetric cables are pulling the phones out my ears with only the suction force of the tips keeping them in place.

Maybe foam tips could make the situation better but to my knowledge there are not any fitting Comply foam tips for the MH1C.

Maybe you can enjoy good sound quality even when pummeled with pain, discomfort and frustration - most people can't.

Seth195208's picture

..in two days. Had them for a month now. Absolutely love them. The easiest way to tell a counterfeit is an inset mesh screen on the ear tube. On the real ones, it's flush.

Hal Espen's picture

The only thing that bothers me about this excellent review is the failure to mention, even just in passing, that Xiaomi has been widely criticized for cloning many aspects of Apple design and marketing. I'm not suggesting that a headphone review needs to wrestle at length with the rights and wrongs of alleged knock-offs and patent rip-offs coming out of China. But when the review talks about how "the company will undoubtedly face many challenges expanding out of Asia... if it can be successfully introduced in other markets, of course," this seems like an excessively coy reference to the difficulty Xiaomi confronts if it wants to grow beyond the safe haven of China and India, and compete in regions where intellectual property rights are rigorously protected. And this aspect of Xiaomi's story makes the review's warning about avoiding pirated Pistons extra-ironic. I think your readers deserved a heads-up.

Impulse's picture

The Pistons are clearly not a rip off from anything Apple and virtually every other smartphone OEM has also been accused of ripping off Apple at one time or another (plus Google).

Who cares? The entire PC industry was built upon companies imitating and copying each other for decades before this ultra litigious age, and that included Apple and MS practically stealing design concepts wholesale from Xerox's PARC.

I don't see any reason such a warning should have any place in the review or why a writer reviewing something (that's only tangentially related even) should be that concerned with tech sector politics at large.

The warning about knock offs is more about protecting the readers from wasting their money than about any morality or preference over X brand's strategy.

Hal Espen's picture

Solid rebuttal, and I'll just add that your somewhat downplaying the issue with an air of world-weary indifference and maybe being overly scornful of what I thought was a pretty mild-mannered and reasonable comment. The story of how Xiaomi is navigating these ethical lines is one of the most distinctive and interesting things about the brand, even if you don't care.

JacktheMac's picture

Apple didn’t steal anything from Xerox PARC. They adopted and licensed it with Xerox’s permission.

It’s true that Microsoft spent the eighties and nineties ripping off Apple wholesale, but Apple have come up with more original products than any other tech company, ever.

So please don’t lump Apple and MS together: one innovates, the other copies; badly.

bhazard451's picture

Xiaomi is one of the companies that will start a revolution of sorts of direct to consumer, high quality goods from China.

"Affordable" and "Quality" are two words corporations like Apple despise seeing together. Most corporations would have no problem having a chinese oem like the one that created the Piston, and would charge $99 for the same IEM with their own "branding".

Instead, now we are starting to be able to get these items direct, and are getting very good quality at prices previously unheard of.

Think of the Piston as the new "Monoprice IEM". It's a small taste into the world of quality audio that people may want to jump into (and get addicted to). It's the entry drug. A good thing for everyone IMO.

Seth195208's picture

Is an interesting thing. Twenty five years ago, I purchased a velodyne subwoofer. After equalizing it, I noticed that the bass was so clean, that it sounded like it wasn't there. I actually had to turn it(subwoofer)way up to compensate for a lack of harmonic distortion in the bass that we expect to hear during playback. I also noticed the same thing with these headphones. The bass is very elevated but does not sound like it, probabably due to the almost complete lack of harmonic distortion in that area.

Copacetic's picture

I too own (and love the sound of) the MH1C, but detest the cables.
I use them on the move (rarely since I bought better, but much more expensive 'phones) and have resorted to using self amalgamating tape to 'tie down' the shape of the cable to more closely resemble a conventional 'Y' cable.
I agree that the MH1C is barely useable in it's stock form.
It provides fantastic sound for the £17 or so that I paid for it, but even at that price I would not use them as the cable constantly pulled one side out of my ears, even with a shirt clip.
'Microphonics' aren't a problem now that I've modded the cable and wear them over ear.
Just my 2c

jeckyll's picture

I might have missed this, but how is the sound isolation? I'm quite interested in these, but I work in an environment where I don't want sound leakage and appreciate sound isolation.

Thanks in advance.

ljokerl's picture
I would say it's average in this price range. There's not much in the way of leakage and of course they isolate better than EarPods and such, but if high noise isolation is a top priority I'd pick something else.
jeckyll's picture

Thanks for the quick reply!

Arvan's picture

I have both the Piston 2.0 and the vsd1s and I very much prefer the Vsonics. The piston has a huge WOW-factor at first listen. The sonics is perfectly tuned for use when out and about. A little bump in the bass, nice peaky treble but they sound to metallic to my ears. The trebble feels hard in some weird way. The vsd1s is smoother, has better midrange and is the iem i choose fore more critical listening while still on a portable device. However, the convenience with the android remote and the rather good cable on the piston makes them a winner to and from work.