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 farthe 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 basicscable 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.