The Complete Guide to Earphones, Part 4: Our Picks, and Yours | iLounge Article


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

In the earlier parts of our Complete Guide to Earphones, we looked at the many types of earphones (Part 1), general pointers and advice on picking a good pair (Part 2), and more advanced, detailed information on what serious listeners look for (Part 3). Most of the preceding information was presented objectively so that you could make your own choice about what’s best for your needs; this Part 4 shares our editors’ personal preferences.

Shure’s E2c (center) is a favorite of many iLounge editors; Shure’s newer SE series is smaller.

We asked our editors three questions: what are your favorite pairs of earphones - not headphones? Why? And if you had to choose just one, which would it be? Our answers are below, and most interesting in that different users with different listening preferences have gravitated to many similar earphones. Of the group, only one editor noted a preference for full-sized headphones, and no one recommended clip-on earphones, lanyard earphones, convertibles, wireless, or hybrid earbud-canalphones. Feel free to add your picks to the comments section at the bottom of the page.

Jesse Hollington, Contributing Editor, Canada: “As regular readers of our forums will probably know by now, I’m not a particularly critical listener when it comes to earphones. However, I’ve been very happy with my Shure E2cs, and find that they provide the best balance for me between a reasonable price and a quality that I can clearly discern over anything lower end. I’m also not one to prefer music that is heavy on bass, with my listening tastes leaning more toward traditional/fusion jazz and classical music, for which heavy bass ruins the experience. The E2c earphones provide a nice, clean and balanced sound, and for my ears, anything higher-end only provides better sound isolation but not enough of a noticeable improvement in sound quality to justify the extra expense.”

Larry AngellL.C. Angell, Senior Editor, United States: “Since I do at least 95% of my iPod listening in the car, I don’t really have a need for fancy, $1K custom-fit canalphones. In fact, I was happy with the stock Apple earphones for a long while on those rare occasions when my iPod left my Honda. I did eventually get a pair of the popular Etymotic ER-6i earphones, which I’ve been using for over two years now. They definitely sound better than most I’ve tried, but they still give me too much ear fatigue during extended use. Maybe I’ve got sensitive ears, or maybe they’re just evil. I haven’t yet decided.”


Etymotic’s ER-6i is another excellent option at the sub-$150 price range.

Jerrod H., Contributing Editor, United States: “Since purchasing my iPod, I’ve almost exclusively used in-ear isolating canalphones. The experience that this style of earphone creates is simply awesome - ambient noise is completely eliminated, allowing you to hear subtle, intricate details of your music you never before knew existed. It’s unpolluted music, seemingly injected right into your head.

Which canalphones are my favorite? I can offer a bit of anecdotal advice. If there’s one thing I’ve found about earphones, it’s that the more you spend, the more subtle the improvements become. My original upgrade from the standard iPod earphones to Shure’s E2c in-ear monitors (~$70) was perhaps the best iPod-related purchase I’ve ever made. The improvement in sound was so superb, I listened to my whole library again and literally rediscovered my music. Some years later, I upgraded to Shure’s ~$300 E4c model, and while they were more comfortable, better looking, and had a noticeably more crisp, accurate sound, the improvement-to-dollar ratio was not nearly as fantastically satisfying as with the relatively inexpensive E2cs.”

Christina Easton, Contributing Editor, United States: “I never had any appreciation for earphone quality before I started to work for iLounge. It’s amazing how much of a difference the right pair of earphones can make. Though the Apple Earphones are fine with me (they’re not bad at all, fit nicely in my ears, and I wouldn’t hesitate to use them), the JAYS d-JAYS are my favorites right now, though they could tweak them to make them more comfortable. v-moda Vibes are great in comfort, but too bass heavy.

The best earphones I’ve ever used are the Shure E500s. I don’t own a pair, but having used them, I wish I had a pair. The sound is just phenomenal at all different levels - bass; the vocals aren’t washed out; it just sounds like music was meant to be listened to. There are songs I’ve listened to where I haven’t even noticed some of the background instruments or vocals in the past, hearing them makes me have new appreciation for those songs. I have very small ears - I don’t know if it’s just because I’m a girl - but I can tell you that they’re more comfortable than most earphones. I know it’s an expensive pair, but if you really have a deep appreciation for music and can afford them, it makes sense to buy them.”


JAYS’ lightweight, detailed d-JAYS have been winning fans around the iLounge offices.

Dennis Lloyd, Publisher, United States: “I’m not as big an earphone junkie as some. If I’m at home, I usually wear full headphones to listen to music. I do own several pairs of earphones, including the Ultimate Ears UE-10, UE-7, UE-5, Etymotic ER-6i, and V-Moda Vibes. For on-the-go listening, I would have to choose the UE-10 for total comfort and the Vibes for bass reproduction. Recently, I tend to wear the Vibes more than anything. I was once a DJ and I tend to like more bass in my earphones, something the Vibe is very good at. The included iPod earphones are totally uncomfortable.”


Though silicone tip issues help make it too bassy for some editors, Vibe from v-moda is a winner for others.

Bob Levens, Contributing Editor, United Kingdom: “This is an easy one. Without doubt the Shure E500 (now Shure E530). Before the E500s came along, I was more than happy with the sound and comfort of the Shure E2c, which has just the right amount of ‘warmth’ for me, without being over bassy. That would be my sub-$100 recommendation of choice. They isolate well, are comfortable over extended listening (with foam tips) and don’t scream ‘I have an iPod, rob me!’ if worn out and about.

I had long hunted for a pair of replacement phones to satisfy my exacting requirements - I tried every pair of phones on the floor at Macworld Expo in 2006. Some were too bright, others had too much bass. The Shure E500 had just been announced, and soon after plugging into my iPod I knew that these were the phones. They sounded great! The price of $500 was going to be a hard pill to swallow but with a favorable exchange rate by the time they hit the shelves (and a milestone birthday looming), I didn’t have any regrets. Since getting them, I have fitted custom ear-molds (Westone’s UM56) which I am pleased with, and these have reduced the need for replacing Shure’s foam tips, otherwise my preferred type. With the E500s I think I have reached my zenith in a search for the best phone and they will hopefully see me a happy listener for some time to come.”


Shure’s pricey E500/SE530 remains an object of lust for iLounge editors who haven’t yet bought them.

Jeremy Horwitz, Editor-in-Chief, United States: “I haven’t used every single earphone out there, but I’ve tried a lot - probably a couple of hundred at last count, around half of them reviewed on iLounge. Even after getting a pair of $900 custom-fit Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pros, I found myself using Etymotic’s ER-4Ps most of the time, because I preferred the lower weight, less ear-filling feel of the Etys, and really loved the accurate detail they offered. The UE-10 Pros had a small edge on bass, but not enough to offset their much larger size. When Shure’s E500s came out, I knew I’d found a winner - much-superior bass that was detailed rather than boomy, in a package that didn’t fatigue my ears. After trying them at CES, I dragged as many of iLounge’s editors as possible over to test them out at Macworld Expo, and they were unanimously embraced. The E500s are currently my favorite earphones - I even bought a pair of replacements after my first pair were lost on a Japanese train - and price aside, my current feeling is that the only improvements Shure could make to them are small ones.

The one surprise I’d point out to readers is that I continue to enjoy using lower-end pairs of earphones despite having access to the cream of the crop technology. Slight styling issues aside, v-moda’s Vibes would have been my ideal pair of earphones on comfort, looks, and pricing if they weren’t so crazy in the bass department. And because I work for iLounge, I still enjoy wearing Apple’s iPod Earphones sometimes, just to let people know that the iPod nation remains strong. The look of what you’re wearing in your ears does matter, and I think it’s going to be even more important for future earphones.”

Need more information on earphones? We’ve reviewed over 100 different models in our massive Accessories section, with tons of pictures and links to their manufacturers. Don’t want to sift through the pile? Check out our 2007 iPod Buyers’ Guide, available as a free download here, which highlights our most recent collection of top picks. Or continue on to Part 5 of the Complete Guide to Earphones.

What are your favorite earphones? Share your views in the Comments section below!

« The Complete Guide to Earphones, Part 5: Cheat Sheets

The Complete Guide to Earphones, Part 3 »

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My current favourite earphones are the Sennheiser CX300.

I wanted an earphone that would block out the noise but I didn’t want to invest hundreds in a pair of headphones. I wanted something practical that wouldn’t be fiddly or look ridiculous.

I started with the Sony EX71s after much recommendation iLounge readers. However, from the first listen, I found the highs to be incredibly sibilant and piercing. Sometimes even painful to listen to. I loved the sound isolation, however, so I persisted.

I’ve owned large Sennheiser headphones before and loved them. So when I saw the CX300s in a store, I bought them on an impulse purchase (they were only $70 AUD) and haven’t looked back!

I find the sound to be clearer, less muddy and without the sibilance of the EX71s while still keeping the same isolation. Also, they and the cables are lighter and made of a smoother rubber than the EX71 so they don’t pull or get caught on my clothing.

I love them and I’m surprised that iLounge hasn’t reviewed them yet!  I think they’re a great compromise if you dont want to spend as much on the expensive Shures and Etys.

Posted by camson in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 13, 2007 at 9:35 PM (CDT)


Admittedly, I won these earphones, so I got them free. But, I must say that xtrememac’s FS1’s are so much better than my Sony EX71s that if I lost them, I would BUY a new pair without thinking twice.
Keep in mind that you must use the foam. It makes all the difference in the world.
Foam offers the most isolation and most comfort. I can now use my iPod while mowing the yard with the volume very much in the ‘safe’ range. The way I look at it, my hearing is worth a lot more than $150.
Bill H.

Posted by Bill Henderson in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 13, 2007 at 11:17 PM (CDT)


Of my in-ears (which there aren’t really many), these are my current preferences:

Favorite from a music reproduction standpoint, dragging an amp around: Ety’s ER-4s. Still the champ in my book in expressing detail, though they do have occasional issues with mid-bass on down, even with a perfect seal. They also tend to be more fatiguing for me than other canals. And of course, there’s the requisite amp that’s absolutely necessary because of their rated impedance.

Favorite from a music reproduction standpoint, amp-free: Shure E500PTH. Hard, no…extremely hard to go wrong with these from an SQ standpoint, but I admit that I often hesitate in taking these out with me because of their relative high cost. I’m not very polite with my treatment of headphones whenever I’m out and about, and with both the Shures and Etys, the wire connections don’t inspire as much confidence given my usual ham-fisted habits as my overall and most-used pair do when outside the house. Also, Jeremy Horwitz’s own experience with losing his first pair is exactly the sort of thing I’m more than capable of doing myself, without any conscious effort whatsoever.

Favorite overall (mostly because of how they handle microphonics, but also because of their stout construction): UE Super.Fi 5 Pros (clear wires). Not the best of this trio for recreating detail, but SQ-wise still very acceptable throughout the frequency range and once used, lesser in-ears like the Sennheiser CX-300 I used to cherish for their relative low cost become virtually unlistenable. Took a while to get used to looping the cables over my ears (look like some dopey wannabee Secret Service agent, only in stereo), but the relative freedom from microphonics was worth putting up with the acclimation period. Under $200, this set is my all-around champ, and they don’t feel like they can be easily ripped apart and damaged like other designs often emote.

I have several in-ear sets purchased under for $100 that I used to use a lot. But aside from the Altec Lansing (Etymotic) iM716 I got for the somewhat bargain price of $80 on Amazon about a year ago, most I can no longer tolerate sonically once I tasted the sweet wine of more expensive designs. As for over-ear designs…well, that’s an entirely different matter altogether. For another post, perhaps.

Posted by flatline response in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 14, 2007 at 4:30 AM (CDT)


I must agree with flatline response - I knew this would happen one day! ;-)  The UE Super Fi 5 Pros are a great set as they are a good compromise between sound quality and price, for me anyway.  As many other readers have noted, my only problem with them so far is that I can hear the artifacing now from crappy compression - which obviously is my own fault. I will have to start saving for the Shure E500’s though - everybody’s got to have a dream!

Posted by lostkiwi in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 14, 2007 at 5:49 AM (CDT)


I also have a pair of Etymotic ER6 which I do use occasionally - I keep them in the car for those times decide to carry the ‘car iPod’ around.
I have more concerns about the cabling on the ER6 than I do with the E500s. The ER6 sit so deep into my ear canal that sometimes the only way to get them out is to tug the cable. Also the silicon ‘sleeve’ around the driver housing has developed a split in it (possibly from me trying to extract the unit with my fingernails.
Thankfully the UM56 moulds on my E500s incorporate a ‘tug stem’ so removing them is easy and doesn’t involve applying any force to the E500 cables.

Posted by Bob Levens in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 14, 2007 at 10:46 AM (CDT)


Amazon has the Ety ER-6is for US $68, reduced from $149. Crazy

Posted by Nuke666 in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 15, 2007 at 11:05 PM (CDT)


I am one of the people who can’t stand the stock iPod headphones. I made the mistake of searching for an “affordable” replacement pair first. Considering the amount of money I’ve spent trying to find the “perfect pair” I should have just started with an expensive pair. First I bought some cheap Sennheiser ear buds (can’t even remember what they were). They were worthless. Honestly sounded no better than the iPod buds and they were just as uncomfortable. I also tried a pair of Philips headphones that I returned that same day since they sounded TERRIBLE! Next were the Sony ex71’s and I have to admit they’re a really acceptable pair. I mean, they’re not awesome, but for the price they’re not that bad. I now have a set of etymotic ER6i’s and I love them. Very comfortable and great sound (this is coming from someone who hasn’t tried the e500/530’s.

The other day I was lucky enough to speak with the founder of Headroom (, and the Mecca of headphone lovers) and he basically convinced me that my next phones will be the e500/530’s. He’s a great guy by the way, if you get the chance to chat with him, DO.

Posted by urbanslaughter in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2007 at 2:46 PM (CDT)


Oh, and Nuke666, the guy at Headroom explained to me that the reason they don’t carry etymotics anymore is because of ety’s distribution model. Basically, Amazon can sell etymotics cheaper than other distributers can buy them from etymotic itself.

Posted by urbanslaughter in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2007 at 2:50 PM (CDT)


Oh God. Is This Really Important? Oh yes, it is. Headphones are an important part of every iPod owner’s life. I prefer my ER6i’s over every pair of canalphones I’ve purchased.  Far behind the Etys are my MDR-EX71’S, which are cool when not home (I just can’t go away from home with the ER6is, since I’m 15 and don’t have a job, I had to wash a lot of cars to get the money and buy them)

Posted by The guy from Puerto Rico in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 17, 2007 at 1:39 PM (CDT)


I have a major problem with the pack in eabuds, they are too big to fit my ears and keep falling out! They sound quite good but i find them painfull if worn for more than 15mins. I quickly replaced these with a set of Creative Labs EP630 and found a HUGE improvement, very comfortable, great balanced sound which was not boomy and thus very user friendly for my 45mins trip to work. Everyone i have lent these too has agreed that these are a significant step up from the pack in ear buds, considering that very reasonable price. My earbud of choice has to be the Westone UM2s i have been fortunate enough to have owned for the last two months. These are an incredible price increase over the Creatives but the sound is absolutely fantastic - out of this world! They deliver everything accurately, bass, mids, treble with an ever so slight warmth that makes listening a pleasure, and extended listening (3hrs, late one night, the first day i tried them!) a very, very memorable experience. Some earphones may sound super accurate for a short listen but this could become very tiring over a long period, my days of experimenting with hifi separates has taught me that! The UM2s are very light, very comfortable (cord over the ear) and used with the supplied tips or used with the Shure triple flange tips, as i do. Minus points are that they don’t come packed with a great deal of goodies (case, tips, etc) and therefore don’t have the showroom appeal of the more popular makes like Shure and Ultimate Ears.

Posted by mikeerac in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 18, 2007 at 6:58 PM (CDT)


My favorites are the Etymotic ER-4p modded with the Shure e500 rubber tips (not the three flange, but rather the rubber bubble-looking one).  The seal is better and it is far more comfortable with the Shure tips rather than the standard three flange tips.

Posted by Ton the Mon in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 19, 2007 at 11:20 AM (CDT)


Following the recommendations in part 4 of the iLounge guide to earphones, I have just replaced the Apple earphones with the Shure E2c’s, which are comfortable and fit very well (they don’t drop out like the Apple earpohones do).  The sound is great - playing my motley collection of music, podcasts, audio books and radio shows is a whole new listening experience.  Definitely money well spent, and thanks to iLounge - I hadn’t really appreciated the difference between one pair of earphones and another until I read this guide. 


Posted by venuskitten in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 19, 2007 at 2:43 PM (CDT)


Shure E2c. I commute a lot and these do a heck of a job isolating noise. I used JVC HA-FX55 before getting these, and they were decent for the price I paid ($25 CAD). Minimal noise isolation, but at this point I was in-ears were they way to go for me. I got my Shure E2c several months later for $70 CAD at a grand opening sale. My only gripe is the expensive ear wax guard. However, my ears are pretty clean, so no real problems. The newer models came with soft flex sleeves, which are incredibly comfortable. Before they only came with [hard] flex sleeves, so a lot of reviews are outdated. The perfect seal is important, otherwise, these are a waste of money. I got a set of Bose TriPort recently for $105 CAD. I still continue to use Shure E2c though. I am most likely going to sell my TriPort because as great as the sound might be, I need noise isolation. I’ll give it another go tomorrow. Shure E2c will remain one of my best purchases ever. No more hearing loud obnxious teenagers, crying babies, screeching train tracks, etc.

Posted by N e s s in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 19, 2007 at 11:24 PM (CDT)


Another vote for Shure’s E2c’s. I recommend the foam sleeves for added sound isoation.  They may seem a bit intrusive at first but when you get that perfect fit you’ll know it was worth it. Using anything else will just feel like you’re slumming it.

I’m sure I’ll move up the earphone chain at some point (when I get more $$$), but until then the E2c’s will be my earphone of choice. 

I should probably add that I’ve had to send back two sets since I bought them due to one earphone dying.  Shure sent me back two brand new sets no questions asked.  Their warranty is tops!

Also, I use the sony EX51’s at the gym mainly because I don’t want total sound isolation in that environment and they’re generally cheaper so I don’t have to worry about sweat and what not.  I find the Sony’s a little bass heavy but that really isn’t a negative when you’re pumping iron and trying not to make eye contact with anyone around you.

Excellent write-up ilounge!  I thoroughly enjoyed reading about all the different styles of earphones.  I didn’t even know there was so much variety.

Posted by wmurch3 in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 20, 2007 at 3:20 AM (CDT)


I use the Dose Triport IE earbuds and the Quiet Comfort 3. In spite of some other users, I dont have any problems with the standard silicone fits of the Triport. The sound of both earphones is very satisfying.

Posted by mkummer in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 24, 2007 at 4:56 AM (CDT)


i’m very happy with my Etymotic ER-6i, the combination with a portable headphones amplifier, and a good dock cable to the amplifier it’s great¡¡¡

Posted by gonzalo in East Amherst, NY, USA on April 12, 2007 at 10:43 AM (CDT)


My first foray into higher end earphones was the Apple In-Ear headphones about 2 years ago.  Compared to the standard iPod pack-ins, I was totally blown away by the improved sound quality of them.  Nice bass, great isolation.  My only problem was that I couldn’t keep the things in my ears, and about 3 months ago, they were starting to fall apart from the rigors of my daily commute.

I had some free money from my income tax refund, and based on reviews here and other places, I decided on a pair of Etymotic ER-4P’s.  I’ve had them for a month, and the difference is truly mind-blowing.  Having had In-Ear headphones for about 2 years, I thought I was ready for the difference in sound quality, but I was just not prepared for the sheer amount of DETAIL that these headphones reveal.  Bottom end took a little getting used to…  It truly depends on the material you’re listening to, but I rarely, if ever have to change the EQ on my iPod in order to detect the low end.

Two caveats with these particular headphones:  First, you have to be prepared to go through a break-in period with them.  by break-in, I’m not talking about the drivers; the drivers sounded great right out of the box, but as far as fit was concerned, I’m using the foamies with them, and it’s taken about a month for them to finally get to the point where they’re comfortable enough that I can keep them plugged in for more than an hour.

The other issue that I have is that with earphones of this calibre your source material will make ALL the difference in your listening experience.  My Digital audio preference is MP3 @ 256 Kbps, which I believe is a respectable bitrate, but I’ve heard some CD’s that were released a couple of years ago, and the distortion on the high end is too distracting (Susan Tedeschi’s Hope & Desire comes to mind), a pity, considering the fine quality of the music.

Otherwise, these are a FABULOUS set of earphones.  If you can afford them, by all means, do yourself a favour and pick them up.  You won’t regret it.

Posted by pokeylicious in East Amherst, NY, USA on May 19, 2007 at 10:12 PM (CDT)


absolutely without doubt shure se530 all the way ive tried the ue triple fi 10 and they simply miss out on the best due to average design,colour is nice blue at time of release but the 5 pro design dont go down well with my head,earphones should just look more personal,the shures also sound abit more musical and clean

Posted by jinx20001 in East Amherst, NY, USA on July 10, 2007 at 3:49 AM (CDT)


I have gone through many sets of earphones, but my favorite all around canalphone is the Audio Technica ATH-CK7. Not much is said about Audio Technicas but this is considered a top audio brand around the world, they just haven’t gained popularity here as much.

The CK7 aren’t the most neutral/accurate earphones around compared to the high priced triple driver IEM’s. I also own the Sony EX90, Panasonic HJE70, Etymotic ER4S, Etymotic ER6i, EX70/71 and I still prefer the CK7 which gives a reasonably neutral sound, good balance between highs and lows, good punch in the bass without sounding exaggerated (this is an important point because I find the sound signature to be similar to my home system which has an in-room frequency response flat all the way down to 21Hz). It has decent detailed sound with clear sparkly treble. All in all, enjoyable without being too colored. Lastly, it looks nice and feels like a it’s built like a brick.

At home I listen to my AKG K701 through a headphone amp, but on the go, I grab my CK7’s. They are cheap enough that I’m not afraid to lose them (I did lose my first pair), but they work well with most types of music

Posted by rt in East Amherst, NY, USA on October 5, 2007 at 11:08 AM (CDT)


Just a quick note about USING these many fine phones: California & probably most other states specifically forbid driving with ears “blocked.” (Apparently, piloting a couple of tons of steel around while not being fully aware of your environment is frowned upon.)

So, alas, I pull my Ety 4P’s while I’m driving.

Posted by WaltFrench in East Amherst, NY, USA on December 28, 2007 at 3:43 PM (CST)

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