In-ear Headphones Adventures

I’ve been on a bit of a headphones splurge lately: anyone who knows me will know that I like my music, and I love my gadgets. I like in-ear headphones for travelling since they’re small, unobtrusive, yet can still give excellent sound quality. While nothing beats a nice pair of full-head cans for comfortable listening, they’re a little bit awkward to tote around. Interestingly, I’ve found that my experiences with in-ear headphones have been quite different from most of the reviews that I’ve read on the ‘net about them, so I thought I’d post my experiences here to bore everyone. The executive summary: make sure that whatever in-ear phones you buy, wherever you buy them, be prepared to bear the cost if you don’t like them, or make sure you can return them.

Note: For comparative purposes, my preferred non-in-ear headphones are the Sennheiser PX-100s (USD$60), IMHO one of the best open earphones in its price range. I don’t consider myself to be an audiophile at all: I think I know sound reasonably well, but I’m not fussy as long as the general reproduction is good. A general guideline is that if I state that something lacks bass compared to something else, you’ll be able to hear the difference unless you’re totally deaf, but I’m not fussy about whether the bass is ‘soft and warm’ and all that other audiophile crap. For serious listening/monitoring, I currently use Beyerdynamic DT 531s, and previously used AKG-141s. The Sennheiser PX-100 nor any of the headphones below are any real comparison to these beasts: the 531s and 141s are meant for professional monitoring with serious comfort; it’s a whole different target market.

So, here are some in-ear headphones that I’ve tried over the years:

  • Apple iPod earbuds: Mediocre sound quality, trendy white, comes with iPod. Stays in the ear reasonably well. Not enough bass for my liking, but that’s no surprise considering they come for free. That said, they’re a hell of a lot better than the earbuds that come with most MP3/CD players; the Sony PSP also came with trendy-white headphones, and they sucked a lot more than the iPod earbuds.

  • Griffin Earjams (USD$15): Designed as an attachment to the iPod earbuds. This doobie significantly changes the output of the earbuds so that you now get a good amount of bass, with very little treble. Not good enough: I like bass in my doof-doof music, but I don’t want to hear just the doof-doof-doof, you know? If you’re tempted to get these, I’d suggest trying Koss’s The Plug or Spark Plug in-ear phones instead, which are just as cheap, have just as much (if not more bass) reproduction, and don’t suffer so badly on the treble end.

  • Apple in-ear Headphones (USD$40): I really liked these. About the only thing I don’t like about them is that they don’t fit in my ear well enough: they’re fine for a couple of minutes, but after about 10 minutes I realise that they’re falling out a bit and I have to wiggle them in again. I don’t find this too much of an annoyance, but no doubt other people will. If you plan to do exercise with your in-ear phones, you will definitely want to give these a very good break in and find out whether they come loose during your gymming/running/skiing/breakdancing/whatnot.

    I’m fairly sure the loose fitting is due to a different design they use: the actual earpiece/driver seems to be much bigger than the other in-ear headphones I’ve tried here, and I guess they’re designed to be used further away from the ear rather than being stuck deep into your ear canal, as with the Sony and Shures I tried (and no doubt like the Etymotics in-ear phones too). The nice thing about this design is that you don’t have to stick them really, really deep, which is the main reason I like them. I find the Sony and the Shures want to be too deep for my comfort level; see below.

  • Sony MDR-EX71SL (USD$49): Available in white or black. After much internal debate and agony, I got the white model. (Trendy or street-wise? Trendy or street-wise? Trendy it is!) This was the first model I bought after the Apple in-ear headphones, expecting to have seriously better sound. After all, everyone knows that for audio, more expensive always means better—especially those gold-plated, deoxygenated, shiny-looking, made-from-unobtanium Monster Cables. Anyway, I was fairly disappointed with their sound quality: less bass than the Apple’s iPod earbuds. Well, OK, let’s be honest: I’m sure they do sound really good if not far better, but I’ll never find out, because I really don’t want to shove them in my ear that far. Unlike the Koss Plug series, these Sonys don’t come with foam earpieces that can be inserted at a comfortable distance, so I think you have to put the earpiece far deeper into your ear than I did. In the very unlikely scenario that I did insert them as far as they were meant to go, they sounded pretty crap indeed.

  • Koss Spark Plug (USD$20): The sequel to Koss’s suspiciously cheap older model, which was simply named “The Plug”. The Spark Plug’s just as cheap as The Plug, but supposedly better (or at least different). For $20, I don’t think you can complain a whole lot: they give you a pretty good amount of bass (comparable to the Griffin Earjams), but they’re definitely lacking at the high end, though not as much as the Earjams are. I find the foam earpieces that come with these fit my ear pretty well, don’t have to be put in that deep to deliver that doof-doof bass I’m looking for, and they’re also reasonably comfortable. They’re not quite as comfortable as Apple’s in-ear headphones, but still, better than I’d expect for a piece of foam stuck into my ear. If your sound-playing device has an equaliser, you can likely correct for the Spark Plug’s lack of treble response by putting it on an Eq setting that boosts the treble a bit: I found the Spark Plug to be sound pretty good on iPod’s Treble Boost or Electronic Eqs. A good, safe (and pretty cheap) buy.

  • Shure E3c/E4c (USD$179 and USD$299): So, I found the Apple Store stocking one of the most acclaimed in-ear phones I’ve ever read about, which would be the Shure E3c. (Note: the ‘c’ in E3c stands for consumer, and basically translates to “trendy iPod white”. The Shure E3 is exactly the same, but is black, and therefore faster.) Additionally, they also had the Shure E4c in stock, which are far more pricey than the E3c (and therefore better). Unfortunately, I put both of these headphones into the same category as the Sony MDR-EX71SLs: I’m sure they’re as absolutely awesome as all the glowing reviews say, but I’m just a wimp and refuse to shove those damn things that far into my brain. Oh yeah, on a not-very-relevant note, Shure changed the packaging between the E3c and the E4c. The E3c had a (gasp) easy-to-open plastic pack, but apparently Shure have since been attending the American School of Plastic Packaging, and used them evil blister packs instead.

  • Griffin EarThumps (USD$20): Released at the start of 2006, I managed to find a pair of EarThumps calling me at my local AppleCentre, and I like them alot. They’re pretty cheap (they’re sure as hell not in the Shure E3c/E4c price range), and they sound great. The bass production is nearly as good as Koss’s Plug series, and they actually manage to produce pretty decent treble too, so you won’t have to play around with your graphic equaliser too much to make these sound decent. Additionally, they appear to have the larger drivers that Apple used for their in-ear headphones: this means that you don’t have to shove them so far in your ear. In fact, these were even easier to get into your ear than Apple’s in-ear headphones, and were much less annoying to put in than the Koss ‘phones. They’re also reasonably comfortable and stay in your ear quite well, and come in both black and white models if colour-matching your iPod is an important thing to you.

For on-the-road listening, my current preferred earphones are the Griffin EarThumps: small enough to fit next to an iPod nano in one of those evilly cute iPod socks, with good enough sound and a good comfort level. I was previously using Koss’s Spark Plug, and before that, Apple’s in-ear headphones. The EarThumps are a set of earphones that I can heartily recommend to friends, since they’re reasonably cheap, and more importantly, I know that they won’t have to shove some piece of equipment halfway inside their brain to get any decent sound out of it.

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