After Dr. Dre started the craze with his successful Beats by Dr. Dre audio line-up, many celebrities—several of them hip hop stars like 50 Cent, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and Ludacris—have followed suit with their own earphones. The Soul by Ludacris SL99 is part of the second generation of audio offerings from Ludacris. At $99.95 (direct), the SL99 is priced to compete with pairs like the Bose IE2 ($99.95, 4 stars) and the slightly more expensive Shure SE215 ($119, 4 stars). With strong bass and tweaked high frequencies, the SL99 offers powerful audio performance, but purists seeking flat response will be disappointed.
The primary color of the SL99 is black, with some metallic accents on the earpieces, as well as the “S” logo for Soul by Ludacris. The cable is straight out of the Monster Beats by Dr. Dre Tour High Resolution In-Ear Headphones ($149.95, 4 stars) school of design—flat like linguini. It’s a nice look, and the raised buttons on the control compartment for the iPhone (and iPad and iPod) are easy to use. But their placement, high up on the right earpiece’s cable, make them hard to see. This is a common issue with Apple earphone controls, however—and since it’s nearly across the board, it’s possible Apple mandated this placement, favoring call clarity over convenience.
That aside, the controls handle playback, as well as track and menu navigation, along with call answering and ending. The ASL99 fits in the ear quite securely, and it comes with three pairs of eartips in various sizes. A black protective zip-up carrying case is also included.
One common problem with $100-and-below earphones is distortion on deep bass tracks. Even at maximum, painfully loud volume, the SL99 does not suffer from this issue. The bass response, in fact, is quite intense. On the Knife’s “Silent Shout,” a track with enough low-end to turn less powerful earphones into a fuzzy distorted mess, the SL99 has no issues reproducing the song’s deeply resonant electronic thump with gusto, even at top volume.
After it passes the power test, however, the SL99 is a bit lacking in aesthetics. Bill Callahan’s vocals on his most recent album, Apocalypse, as well as the brass sections on John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” can at times sound pinched, or nasally. The overall response is never painfully bright, but it does sound as if certain frequencies in the mid-to-high realm are too boosted, which is a common issue with earphones that bump the low frequencies as high as the SL99 has.
Without a reciprocal boost in the mids and highs, the overall mix would sound like mud. As it is, the sound signature is never muddy, but the bass could be more articulate. Alas, the SL99 seems to favor low-end presence more than low-end clarity. For hip hop, electronic music, and some modern pop, this can actually have a pleasant effect. Many modern mixes are made for clubs with massive sound systems, where the bass is the most important aspect of the music. It’s not a very accurate sound, however, and it limits what genres the SL99 excels with: Classical, folk, and jazz do not fare as well as bass-oriented pop music.
By no means a poor choice, the Soul by Ludacris SL99 shows serious promise, but it’s overpriced considering what the competition is offering. The Editors’ Choice AKG K 350 ($79.95, 4 stars) provides tremendous value in an assuming package. It exhibits minor distortion at high volume on deep bass tracks, but at reasonable listening levels, its overall sound signature offers a better balance. Even for bass lovers, the same-price Bose IE2 offers a more secure fit and better-balanced sound. If you have a little more money to spend, the $120 Shure SE215 features excellent audio performance, as well as the rare detachable cable, a feature that helps extend the life (and value) of the earphones.