Skullcandy Riff Headphones Review: The Bare Minimum

Do you want ear pads and sound quality and nothing else?

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Skullcandy. The name evokes skiers, snowboarders, and low cost headphones you can find in a grocery store.

But like them or not, Skullcandy is a force in the budget headphone market. About five years ago, they overhauled their whole sound signature design philosophy, and started to target a more neutral, natural sound that still brought some of the bass thump that their target market expects.

They don’t design their headphones to try and hit the same precise targets that some of the audiophile brands go for, instead chasing an “emotional feeling” for your music.

I mostly loved the old Skullcandy Grind, but it’s now been gradually phased out at retail outlets (alongside other lower end Skullcandy products) in favor of the Riff, a newer and much cheaper design.

The Riff delivers the bare minimum you might need in a pair of headphones, which is all I could reasonably ask for at this rock bottom price. But it’s not good enough to be your only, or first, choice.

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OVERVIEW

Available in a wired version for $20, and a wireless Bluetooth version for $50, the Riff comes in a variety of fun colors, so naturally I bought the black one.

The wired version only connects through a 3.5mm connection and the wireless one only connects over Bluetooth. If you need a Skullcandy model that does both, you’ll have to step up to the Hesh 3.

I bought the wired version after trying an in-store demo unit of the wireless one, and discovering them to be nigh-identical in sound and fit.

The Riff is a closed-back on-ear headphone with a design reminiscent of the old Bose SoundTrue on-ear…but built rather poorly. It’s saved from being terrible by its sound quality and its nice ear pads.

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SOUND QUALITY

The Riff is a v-shaped headphone, but with just enough detail in the midrange to avoid the sucked-out or hollow characteristics of worse headphones. It has a warm, smooth bass, a laid back midrange that has a natural tone, and highs that are a little rolled off at the very top and strident just before that, but not to the point of fatigue.

It’s a very safe, very “consumer” warm sound signature, but with a little bit more detail than I’d normally expect from this sort of tuning. That’s really cool. They sound much better than the TaoTronics BH-060’s. The TaoTronics SoundSurge 46 I also reviewed recently is a darker, bassier, more impactful headphone, and has a little less oomph in the treble.

You won’t find a luscious midrange or studio-perfect sound here, but like the Grind before it, this is a surprisingly good-sounding headphone. In this budget price range, the Koss KPH30i and Porta Pro deliver more detail and clarity at every level, but that the Skullcandy pair even gets in the same ballpark at its rock bottom low price is impressive.

Isolation is mild, with a bit of reduction across the spectrum, that’s then hampered by the breathable design of the pads. These aren’t the best choice for a loud environment.

As long as you can handle some bass and some artificial sparkle, you might really like the sound of these. Nothing about them screams “BAD.”

Skullcandy came a long way with their new tuning philosophy that started back with the original Grind, and this carries on that same tradition. It’s not “accurate” or “flat,” but it correctly conveys the character of the music while still having boosts in the areas a lot of folks find fun. At 20 dollars, these sound totally fine.

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COMFORT

I bought the Riff not just because the store demo unit sounded good, but also because the ear pads were incredibly soft and squishy.

I almost exclusively loathe on-ear headphones, because they press my ears into my head and sandwich my glasses while doing so. This pressure eventually leads to discomfort and displeasure.

The only on-ear I’ve completely enjoyed the fit of was the old Bose SoundTrue On-Ear. Both its wireless and wired versions made use of a perfectly balanced headband with big soft ear pads that somehow magically made an on-ear fit comfy, even when I wore my glasses. That Bose discontinued the range is ridiculous, in my opinion.

I’m happy to say the Skullcandy Riff provides 90 percent of the comfort of the SoundTrue On-Ear, which is wild considering the price and build quality differences.

The Riff’s ear pads are large, ear-shaped, and incredibly soft, with ample foam and a big air pocket in the center where the sound also radiates through. They don’t use memory foam, but the squishy standard foam is more than up to the task of sitting ever so gently on your ears.

On my big head, I have to extend the Riff almost fully, so it might not be the best choice for non-average head sizes.

The only let-down comfort-wise is the complete lack of headband padding. There’s none. Zero. Zip. Just a strip of hard plastic. Even a tiny cushion up here would have elevated these to top-tier comfort status. I know that they’re light, and I’m sure Skullcandy was trying to save every dollar possible, but a Riff 2 with a little headband padding would be wonderful.

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BUILD/DESIGN

The look of the Riff is fine, a standard take on an on-ear design that doesn't stick out too far when worn. And they even fold down to a compact form for travel.

But the build quality here is bottom of the barrel.

Again, these start at 20 dollars. So I get it. But I can’t help but miss the solid build of the admittedly more-expensive Grind.

The Grind had an all-metal headband and a real sturdy, road ready feeling to it. The Riff is built entirely of thin plastic. My pair started creaking on both sides the second I laid hands on it. The headband is very thin and seems like it’d be easy to snap. The hinge mechanisms rub together every time you use them. Over time, they’ll no doubt erode away and stop working right.

A 40 dollar Riff that kept some of the build characteristics of the Grind, but added the new ear cup shape and pad foam, would have been phenomenal.

At 20 dollars, the wired Riff is probably packing all the build it possibly can. But the 50 dollar wireless model could have at least used some metal in the headband, to stop the creaking.

FEATURES/EXTRAS

The wired Riff includes a hollow-sounding in-line microphone that picks up all the background noise, and a large satisfying play/pause control button on the back of the right ear cup.

Years ago, the original wired Grind included a removable cable and a similar clicky control button. The Riff has a permanently attached cable, and its right-side entry in a world where left is the norm meant that I kept almost putting the headphones on backwards.

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FINAL THOUGHTS

Do you want to pay for decent sound, good ear pads, and absolutely nothing else? Then the Riff is your new favorite headphone. The build quality has been lowered about as far as a headphone can take it without ceasing to exist. The feature set is fine, but I almost wish it didn’t have the button and microphone if that meant the build could be improved.

The Riff’s greatest additions over the Grind, and other previous low-end Skullcandy headphones, are the new shape and comfort of the ear pads. I’d love to see a Grind 2 with these larger pads, a design idea so obvious that I can’t stop thinking about it.

You won’t hate yourself for spending 20/50 dollars on these, and they might even surprise you. Just don’t expect them to last more than a year.

Written by

I do radio voice work by day, and write by day and night. I studied film and production. I love audio, design, and music. Also video games.

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