The Complete Guide to Earphones, Part 3 | iLounge Article

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The Complete Guide to Earphones, Part 3

In the first two parts of our Complete Guide to Earphones, we looked at the many types of earphones (Part 1), then offered general pointers and advice on picking a good pair (Part 2). This Part 3 is designed to help you understand the specific factors we consider most important in evaluating pairs of earphones; Part 4 offers our editors’ top earphone picks and points you towards additional information on iLounge.

 

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Westone’s UM2 is a popular choice amongst musicians, offering smooth sound and comfort.

Consider the first two parts of this Guide to have been a warm-up for what follows: our look at the five factors that are most important to an educated earphone purchase. By the end of Part 3, our hope is that you’ll understand each of these factors, and as noted in Part 2, you should rank them in your own order of importance, and look for earphones that achieve your personal goals.

Making a Smart Choice: The Details

The five factors that matter most in any earphone are Price, Sound, Comfort, Looks, and Durability. Each of these factors is a little more complex than it initially appears, so we’ll discuss them individually here.

  • Price: Most users will find that price is a critical factor in any earphone buying decision - the first knife that separates likely candidates from unlikely ones. Earphones sell for between $15 and $900. Over the last several years, we’ve seen four logical price brackets form within that wide range: earphones selling for $50 or under, $150 or under, $300 or under, and “price no object” (above $300). Though there are occasional exceptions, earphones in these price brackets tend to be most similar to one another on features, quality, and performance.
    • We think that the sweet price spots for earphones are between $100-150 for music lovers and $250-300 for hard-core listeners. Options sold for $50 or less are almost inevitably fine for the price, but entirely forgettable when you’ve used anything better.
    • Recent improvements in earphone technology have enabled companies to deliver better sound at lower prices, so an A-rated earphone in 2006 or 2007 will generally be more impressive than one similarly rated in 2004 or 2005. Today, there are many excellent offerings priced at or around $100, while new $400-$500 earphones perform as well as or better than earlier $900 offerings. Our most recent reviews note these shifts as appropriate.
    • Our standard advice to first-time earphone buyers is to consider the purchase an investment: spend between $100-$150 today and you’re guaranteed to get a mind-expanding improvement in sound quality, rather than buying several pairs of decent $30-50 earphones and throwing them away. Trust us, you’ll be glad that you spent the extra money when you realize how much a good pair of earphones can improve your music.

     

  • Sound: Most people know the basics of sound - “treble” (high-pitched sounds), “bass” (low-pitched sounds), and “midrange” (everything inbetween) are what many people listen for in music, though earphone sound is actually much more complex than that. (Our iPod 201 Tutorial, Equalizers and Advanced iTunes Features, discusses the subject in greater depth.) We consider four factors to be especially important when assessing the sound of a new pair of earphones: sound balance, dynamic range, clarity/distortion, and staging.

    • Sound balance refers to the earphone’s relative levels of bass, treble, and midrange - whether the designers present sound neutrally by balancing these types of sound equally, or skew/color the sound so that bass, treble, and/or mids are exaggerated. Over-exaggeration can make certain types of music sound distorted.
      image Etymotic’s vaunted ER-4 series offers impressive detail, but Ultimate Ears’ clear UE-10 Pro have a wider range, with additional bass. Shure’s copper-toned E500s rival the UE-10s’ range, but exaggerate the bass - a different sound balance.
    • Range/Frequency Response:* As we use the word, “range” describes the earphone’s ability to let you hear the most extreme high and low ends of the audio spectrum - technically, it’s called Frequency Response. Shure uses charts, replicated below, to let you know how much of the audio spectrum a given pair of its earphones can perform: its lower-end earphones have up to three circles per side, showing their bass and treble range, with its best earphones using four circles per side and four always-full “mids” circles. (* We prefer to avoid calling this “Frequency Response,” because that phrase is frequently cited on packages and advertising to misleadingly summarize what a piece of audio equipment will sound like; our advice is not to make much of these numbers unless they’re provided by reputable manufacturers, and even then, rely on your ears before coming to any conclusions about their accuracy.)
      image
    • Clarity/distortion are positive and negative ways of describing an earphone’s ability to reveal hidden details or flaws in your audio. The better the earphone, the more detail it reveals in all parts of the audio spectrum; many earphones reveal only high-end detail and leave bass and mids muddier. However, really good earphones can actually make compressed MP3 music sound worse, as they make it easier for you to hear ‘artifacts’ caused by compression - a problem most noticeable with earphones sold for $150 or more.
      image As a general rule, the less expensive an earphone is, the more likely it is to make music sound muddy. Apple’s official iPod pack-ins are surprisingly good, but knock-offs try to match their looks, not their sound.
    • Finally, there’s staging. Really excellent headphones have in the past enabled listeners to have a greater sense of “being there” in the recording studio or concert venue, separating vocals from instruments and placing them at different places on a virtual stage in your ears. Accurate staging is hard to achieve in earphones, in part because the smaller, earcup-less speakers have less ability to bounce sound off of your outer ears, creating the echoes that resemble open-ear listening. Some earphones do a better job than others at faking or approximating staging; we currently tend to consider this a less critical area of importance than the other sound factors, but not irrelevant.

 

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Headphones such as AKG’s k701s cover your ears and use larger speakers, together convincing your brain
that you’re hearing bigger, more natural sound. The trade-off: considerable physical size.

  • Comfort: Even more subjective than sound is “comfort,” the rough summary of how an earphone feels on the surfaces of your ear. Given the variety of ear shapes and sizes - one person’s ears, for instance, can have two differently-shaped canals - there’s no easy way to predict whether a given earphone will feel loose or tight in your ears. But there are things manufacturers can do to increase your chances of satisfaction.
    • Size, Shape, and Location of Earpiece: As you can tell from the photographs, earphones vary widely in each of these respects. Generally, the smaller the earpiece and the less dependent on additional reinforcement it is, the more universally comfortable it will be, but little shape issues can make even certain small earphones hard to wear.
    • Tips: Size aside, canalphones depend almost entirely upon soft tips - padded covers - to bond with your ears. These tips range from porous foam and coated foam to various shapes and sizes of silicone rubber, and infrequently soft plastic. Preferably earphones will come with multiple sizes and types of tips to fit different shapes of ears; in recent months, we have come to prefer coated foam over even silicone. You’d be amazed at how much of a difference the right tips can make in both comfort and sound - without the right tips for your ears, even the best earphones will sound terrible.
      image Shure’s lineup of earphones, including SE210 (shown), includes fit kits with rubber and foam ear tips in multiple sizes.
      Though rubber has come to be the material of choice in making earphones more comfortable, many earbuds and clip-on earphones still rely upon puffy foam or fabric covers to lessen ear fatigue; these covers make the earphones bigger and are susceptible to tearing.
      image Sennheiser’s LX70s came with easy-to-tear foam earbud covers.
    • Weight: Earphones vary considerably in weight - generally measured including their cables - but unless they become exceptionally heavy, we typically don’t consider this to be a critical factor in determining comfort. Low-end earphones such as Apple’s earbuds weigh as little as 4 grams (0.14 ounces), while premium earphones - especially those with two or three drivers - are where you’ll typically see extra weight. Etymotic’s ER-6 series earphones and v-moda’s Vibe both weigh a comparatively light 12 grams (0.42 ounces), but the ER-4 series weighs 28 grams (0.99 ounces) and still wouldn’t bother virtually any user - its heavier cabling is most likely responsible. For comparative purposes, the first-generation iPod shuffle weighed 22 grams (0.78 ounces), and the second-generation version weighs 16 grams (0.55 ounces). Shure’s high-end E5cs weigh 1.1 ounces, and E500/SE530s weigh 30 grams (1.05 ounces). Based on our experiences, we’d start to be concerned about earphones weighing more than 30 grams, and those that distribute their weight unevenly, as sometimes happens with large in-line volume control boxes placed too high on the cabling.
      image Despite their metal bodies, v-moda’s Vibes feel surprisingly lightweight.
    • Cable Length, Symmetry, and Materials: Rare is the pair of earphones that has too little cable to reach your iPod in your pocket - too much cabling is far more common, forcing you to deal with dangling wire or use a cord manager. To this end, some companies recently have been segmenting their cables, with a mid-cable split-off point that is generally sized to let you use a wired remote control without any dangling wire, and others have aimed for 4- to 5-foot total cable lengths, which are in the “right” range for full-sized iPods and nanos. For everything else, cord managers are an option; we feature a number of them in our Accessories Guide here.
      image JAYS’ new d-JAYS earphones have a cable that splits in the middle for use with remote controls.
      It’s also worth noting that some cables are asymmetrical - longer on one earphone side than the other - in an attempt to redistribute the earphones’ weight and/or limit their ability to be tugged out. Many people find the asymmetrical design to be more annoying and uncomfortable than it’s worth; it is more popular in Asia than in the United States, and U.S. versions of asymmetric Asian earphone models are sometimes recabled for U.S. customers.
      image Despite the sound quality of Philips’ SHE9501, some readers griped about its asymmetrical cabling.
      The plugs used on earphone cables can also vary dramatically in size and shape from model to model. Some are straight, some are 90-degree angled (L-shaped), and some are more gently angled or curved. According to Etymotic, angled plugs stand up to heavy use and abuse much better than most straight plugs, as they relieve strain placed on the cable when users wrap their cables around their iPods. Straight plugs are more likely to suffer damage when wrapped in this way. Bear in mind that the larger and thicker the plug is - attributable to metal or plastic reinforcement - the more difficult it may be to use the plug with certain iPod cases, a fact noted in all iLounge case reviews for the past two or so years.
      image Different plugs, clockwise from upper left: Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pros (large L), Etymotic ER-4P (small L), JAYS d-JAYS (medium straight), Altec Lansing iM716 (small curved), Apple iPod Earphones (small straight), JBL Reference 210 (medium L).
      One final point on cables is that the materials they’re made from can impact the earphones’ weight, longevity, and even sound. Thinner cables tend to reduce earphones’ weight, but can also be easier to snap or fray. By contrast, thicker cables can sometimes create “microphonics” - tiny echoes that can be heard in the earphones when you move around. Consequently, premium earphones occasionally come with detachable, replaceable cables, and well-made, heavier earphones sometimes use small amounts of memory wire that mold to stay steady on top of your ears. Ultimate Ears’ recent triple.fi 10 Pros are an example of an earphone with memory wire; the company frequently also includes detachable, replaceable cables. While detachable cables aren’t critically important, in our view, we wish that more high-end earphones, such as Shure’s E500/SE530, would use memory wire.

 

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Eight different colors set v-moda’s bass freqs visually apart from their competitors.

  • Looks: The appearence of a pair of earphones is, like sound, subjective; some people don’t mind wearing even the geekiest earphones if they sound good, while other people only want fashionable earbuds. We’ve seen lots of changes in looks recently, with companies such as v-moda putting equal weight on looks and sound quality, and other companies such as Ultimate Ears and Shure devoting increased effort to making their top-end earphones look cooler than last year’s models, with metallic shells, new color choices, and sleeker edges. At a miminum, many companies now offer both white and black versions of their earphones so iPod owners can go with bright or dark choices. You’ll need to decide whether a given pair looks right for your needs.
    image To offset the unusual sizes and shapes of its custom-fit earphones, Ultimate Ears now offers the user a choice of colors and/or elaborate artwork to make the designs more fashionable.
  • Durability: Kept in good shape - used regularly and stored in a case - one pair of earphones can last you for multiple years. But if exposed to sweat, the tugging of exercise equipment, a dropped iPod, or a dog’s teeth, the exact same pair of earphones can stop working within days of your initial purchase. Unfortunately, we know this all too well: iLounge’s editors and readers have lost multiple pairs of really good earphones to hungry animals, and even the best-made ones can’t withstand serious abuse.

 

image
No matter how well-built your earphones are, a pet can tear them apart, like our favorite Etymotic ER-4Ps.

If you’re going through earphones at a rate faster than one pair every two years, you may need to change your usage habits - get a cheap pair for active use and a good pair for regular listening - or look for specially made alternatives. Companies such as Sennheiser, FireFox Technologies, H2O Audio and others sell sports-specific earphones that are designed to take a beating and/or resist the elements. Reputable earphone manufacturers typically replace defective units - ones that have fallen apart without misuse - for the cost of shipping, and without any other hassles.

A Few Special Caveats on Sound

In addition to the five key factors above, there are three sound-related issues that new earphone buyers should at least consider; it’s up to you whether to give them substantial or no weight when you’re making a purchasing decision.

  • Burn-In: Serious listeners and manufacturers alike disagree as to whether earphones benefit in any way from a “burn-in” period, which is typically an initial, continuous run time of 10 or 20 hours, connected to an iPod at or near its peak volume, but not placed in your ears. Certain listeners swear up and down that burn-in changes the sound of earphones - interestingly, almost always in a positive fashion - while many companies have gone on record stating that their earphones require no burn-in at all, and suggested that listeners are merely hearing what they want to hear. iLounge’s editors have only infrequently noticed any difference between burned-in earphones and ones straight out of the package; it’s our impression that burn-in may sometimes just loosen dust trapped in earphones during packaging and shipping.
    image Bose’s TriPort IEs are amongst the only earphones we’ve heard that sound significantly different after a burn-in period.
  • Manufacturer Inconsistency: It’s not necessarily the case that two seemingly identical pairs of earphones produced by a company will actually sound the same - in fact, to hear some companies talk trash about their competitors, it’s more often the case that they won’t. In our experience, the truth is somewhere in the middle. While the tiniest changes from production run to production run - a millimeter more of silicone rubber on eartips, for instance - can radically alter sound, some companies are more obsessive about consistency than others. Our general rule these days is to avoid earphones from small companies, as they tend to merely resell earphones that haven’t been aggressively quality controlled, and to focus most on companies whose lines of multiple earphones constitute most or all of their business.
    image Yahba’s Opus was stripped of its high recommendation after readers began to experience major problems with both the vendor and the consistency of sound from unit to unit.
  • Sound Subjectiveness: Ideally, everyone would agree about what sounds great, but in reality, sound is at least somewhat subjective - people hear and want to hear at least slightly different things. However, good earphone makers design their products to sound pretty much the same from person to person and unit to unit, which enables generalizations to be made about given pairs of earphones. Your experience may vary, but not by a lot.

Up next: in Part 4 of the Complete Guide to Earphones, iLounge’s editors offer their top picks, and point you towards additional sources of information to help you pick the best earphones for your needs.

« The Complete Guide to Earphones, Part 4: Our Picks, and Yours

The Complete Guide to Earphones, Part 2 »

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Comments

1

What you call “dynamic range” is generally represented “frequency response”, that is, the range of frequencies a set of headphones can reproduce, and their volumes relative to one another.

“Dynamic range” is the *range of dynamics* that a set of headphones can reproduce, that is, how soft they can play and how loud they can play.

Posted by mattwardfh in Texas on March 13, 2007 at 5:28 PM (CDT)

2

Mattwardfh: The use of the phrase “dynamic range” was picked (from the visual/camera sphere) to avoid use of “frequency response,” as the latter term is often misrepresented by companies, and we didn’t want to point new buyers towards a spec they’d look up and be misled by. Based on your comment, an edit’s being made to the piece to clarify this point. Thanks.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 13, 2007 at 6:40 PM (CDT)

3

This is very nice. Now I’ll be doing my own reviews (one headphone per month). lol.

Posted by The guy from Puerto Rico on March 13, 2007 at 6:42 PM (CDT)

4

Great, thanks Jeremy. Wasn’t trying to be difficult or anything; just was afraid of confusion given what reviews on other sites might mean by that term.

I agree that “frequency response” is horribly misrepresented by manufacturers in much the same way that amplifier power often is, and it’s best to avoid confusion.

Posted by mattwardfh in Texas on March 13, 2007 at 7:41 PM (CDT)

5

Burn-in is definitely an issue, at least for some earphones/headphones. When I first got my iPod earphones there was a rattle in the left earbud, so I just played music through the earbuds quite loudly for a few hours and it went away. The exact same thing happened with my Shure SE210 earphones.

Posted by eboyer7 on August 24, 2007 at 11:35 PM (CDT)

6

the 1st time i used my hje70, it has too much treble and almost no bass, then ater 4 months of use, the bass started to come out, and evetually became tighter. maybe its because of the burn-in (4 months? wow!) or i just become accustomed or i just become a better listener.

Posted by BratPAQ on May 2, 2008 at 3:51 PM (CDT)

7

I have a set of Senhesser wireless headphones that have quit operating. I have a hearing lost and really need them for my tv listening to keep from blowing everyone else away. They sounded wonderful. I bought them reconditioned from Hearthland several years ago for over $120.00. I’d order another set tomorrow if I knew where to. Thannks for any help. David

Posted by David Roland Bonner on July 30, 2008 at 6:49 PM (CDT)

8

Can you comment on what is involved in “sterilizing” (or disinfecting) earphones so that multiple folks can use them and not worry about infection etc. What, if any, methods an be used?

I have a business application that may require multiple users and I would like to offer guidance that they need not worry if someone had used previously.

THANKS!
Steve

Posted by steve dravin on May 6, 2013 at 1:13 PM (CDT)

9

thank you Sir for the precious info you published. i love music and i love earphones but as what you posted i dont have earphones like that.

Posted by mary janine a. herrera on July 9, 2013 at 3:42 AM (CDT)

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