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.”
L.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!
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