Twenty years ago, headphones were shrinking, but they were still “headphones,” speakers designed to hang outside of your ears, suspended by a headband. Over the last five years, iPod users have fueled the popularity of “earphones” – headband-less headphones with smaller speakers, like the ones that come with every iPod – and a sub-category of “canalphones,” which fit partially inside your ear canals.
Today, earphones are a big and important business: Bose this week held a press conference just to apologize for problems with its first “in-ear headphones,” while companies such as Sennheiser and Shure have been rolling out not just individual new models, but rather entire earphone lineups all at once, to cater to increasing demand. Prices and features now vary tremendously. Apple sells earphones only for $50 or less, and some vendors focus exclusively on $50 to $100 offerings, while others now sell premium designs ranging from $150 to $900 in price. The wide variety of sounds, shapes, colors and prices has proved increasingly confusing for consumers – and tough to follow from month to month.
Counter-Clockwise from Upper Left: Shure’s 2007 SE210, SE310, SE420, SE530/E500 Models
iLounge’s editors have been keeping up with all of these developments, testing tons of new earphones, and publishing our per-earphone findings in reviews. What’s been missing until now is our big picture perspective – a comprehensive look at the different options out there, designed to help you make the best possible choices for your budget and needs. To remedy that, we’re excited to welcome you to our brand-new Complete Guide to Earphones. This Part 1 is designed to acquaint you with all of your options; Part 2 discusses the basics of earphone selection, Part 3 helps you focus on factors that will match your personal needs, Part 4 contains iLounge editors’ picks, and Part 5 provides a summary with printable cheat sheets if you don’t want to read all the details.
Why Do Earphones Matter?
As long-term iPod users, our editors agree: there’s no accessory as important to your on-the-go iPod experience as a good pair of earphones. Just like the speakers that sit on your desktop, bookshelf, nightstand or floor, the tiny speakers in earphones can seriously muffle, distort, or otherwise change the way your music sounds. Despite Apple’s best efforts, its free iPod pack-ins can’t help but prevent you from hearing songs at peak quality – the iPod is capable of sounding so much better. Replacing your earphones with upgraded alternatives is the easiest way to transform your iPod from “good” to “amazing” in a matter of minutes.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to fall into certain traps when buying replacement earphones: instead of buying one great pair of $100 earphones, you might spend $20-$30 four or five times on cheap replacements that fall apart and never sound as good. And finding earphones that fit both your ears and your listening preferences – say, “balanced sound” or “a lot of bass” – isn’t necessarily easy. It’s critical to pair the right-sounding earphones with your ears, or else you won’t be happy with the results.
The Big Picture: Eleven Types of Earphones
There are at least eleven different styles of earphones currently in the marketplace, a daunting number for those who want to make a quick, smart purchasing decision. Thanks to the pictures and details below, however, it’s actually easy to compare all of the different options; understanding their features and differences is an important first step in making the right purchase for your needs.
Clip-On Earphones: Perhaps our least favorite earphone design is the “clip-on,” shown above. Most commonly sold for $50 or less, clip-on earphones hang relatively large, fabric-padded speakers from the tops of your ears, using plastic pipes and pressure to keep the music as close as possible to your ear canals. Like full-cup earphones, the large-sized speakers used in clip-ons have the potential advantage of delivering outer ear-filling, more believable audio to your ears, but their tendency to leak sound to neighboring listeners and frequently low-quality parts mean that they rarely reach this potential. They also tend to be uncomfortably heavy compared to earbuds, and audio professionals have noted that they’re more dangerous for your ears, as you need to turn up your iPod’s volume louder to hear them. Otherwise, they provide almost no isolation against outside noise. Users who hate smaller earphones may want to consider these anyway.
Apple iPod Earbuds (above) evolved from Sony’s classic, foldable MDR-A10 Walkman Headphones (below)
Macally Retractable Earbuds
Standard Earbuds: Often shaped like upside-down musical notes, standard earbuds are the evolution of Sony’s now-classic foldable Walkman headphones – tiny plastic “buds” that are shaped to stay put inside the very edges of your ear canals, using smaller speakers than the clip-ons, and no headband or other reinforcement to keep them in your ears. Due to their size and lack of reinforcement, they can be uncomfortable for long-term listening, and can fall out if tugged; some companies sell separate cord managers (a fine option) or retractable cables (typically bad) to make this less likely. Standard earbuds tend to be lighter weight than Clip-Ons, and suffer from less sound leakage, so your neighbors will hear less of what you’re listening to. They are rarely sold for more than $50, but companies occasionally sell pairs for as much as $100.
Griffin EarThumps (above), ezGear SX50 (below)
Canalphones: The most recent and increasingly popular form of earphone is the “in-canal earphone” or “canalphone,” which is differentiated from standard earbuds by the even smaller size of its speaker and its use of soft, user-replaceable eartips that fit inside your ear canals. Almost always shipped with “fit kits,” canalphones generally rely on silicone rubber or foam tips to create a seal with your ear canal, blocking out external sounds and keeping the canalphones snugly in your ears. Used with the correct tips, canalphones will experience virtually no sound leakage, and can be heard at lower volume levels that are safer for extended listening. They vary in weight and cord design from model to model, but are often lighter than standard earbuds, and almost always lighter than clip-ons. Prices range dramatically, but most are sold at or below the $50 range; we’ve listed more expensive options in separate categories.
Sennheiser OMX70 Sport (above), Sony MDR-EX81 (below)
Over-the-Ear Earphones: Whether they’re based on earbuds or canalphones, these “over-the-ear” earphones use molded plastic, rubber, or metal mounting pieces to suspend miniature speakers in or immediately outside your ear canals. Sennheiser’s green, silver, and gray OMX70 Sport is intended for use in sports, using its moldings to keep earbuds on your ears during physical activities; Sony’s MDR-EX81 has a canalphone-sized speaker housing with a rubber ear mount for similar purposes. These designs almost invariably sell for $50 or less, and suffer from similar problems as standard earbuds and canalphones, augmented by their tendency to pull the speakers at least slightly away from an optimal position inside your ears.
Apple iPod nano In-Ear Lanyard Headphones (above), Philips SHE7600 (below)
Lanyard Earphones: Sold in versions for the iPod nano, original iPod shuffle, and generics for any device that can physically support them, lanyard earphones can include earbuds or canalphones for your ears, and are distinguished by their inclusion of a neck strap. The strap is generally made from fabric and intended to hold your iPod at chest level for easy navigation while you’re walking around. They sell for as little as $20, but Apple routinely charges $40-50 for its official versions.
JBL Reference 220
Convertible Earphones: Convertible earphones are just beginning to appear in stores around the world. In one package, you get a pair of earphones – earbuds or canalphones – that can be worn alone, or reinforced by attachments included in the package. The reinforcing pieces wrap around your ears, head, or neck, providing support against cable tugging or exercise-related jostling. JBL’s Reference 220s are shown above, but their attachments aren’t that great; substantial further development is needed before this category has a chance of taking off. Prices are in the sub-$100 range.
Sony MDR-EX90 (above), Bose TriPort IE (below)
Semi-Canalphones: Companies – particularly large ones – have been experimenting for several years with earphones that aren’t quite canalphones or earbuds, but instead sit somewhere in-between. Shown above, Sony’s metal MDR-EX90 design has an earbud-sized body with a canalphone-sized silicone tip at the end, while Bose’s much-maligned TriPort IE has an earbud-sized body with a big silicone tip. The intent of these designs is to offer superior audio quality than lower-priced canalphones, without using the expensive miniaturized drivers found in premium canalphones. These hybrid offerings frequently result in polarized user experiences, with some absolutely hating their added size, and some liking it. They range in price up to $100.
Top to bottom: v-moda Vibe, Etymotic ER-4P, Ultimate Ears triple.fi 10 Pro, Shure E500/SE530
Premium Canalphones: Designed mostly to appeal to users looking for far better than average sound quality, premium canalphones now frequently step up in looks, too. Unlike standard canalphones, which consist of one low-end speaker driver per ear, premium canalphones use higher-quality drivers – sometimes one, two, or three per ear. They tend to rely on certain acoustic design principles, such as measured distances between their drivers and your ears, to improve sound quality, often resulting in longer bodies than standard canalphones, and the addition of multiple drivers generally makes them thicker, as well. In recent months, companies such as v-moda, Shure, and Ultimate Ears have been working to glamorize their most expensive offerings with true metal or metallic-painted casings, adding fashion to what used to be somewhat geeky high-end earpieces. Premium canalphones generally sell for between $100 and $500.
Clockwise from top: Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pro, Shure E500, Etymotic ER-4P (old)
Custom-fit Canalphones: A special subset of premium canalphones are custom-fit designs, a category dominated by Ultimate Ears. As in the clear-bodied UE-10 Pro above, custom-fit earphones take audio drivers that could otherwise go into more compact, universal shells, and instead place them in plastic bodies that have been molded to the shapes of your ears. A full article on this category of earphones can be found here; it suffices to say that these options are preferred by recording professionals and very serious listeners. Prices are always in the hundreds of dollars; the UE-10 Pro shown here sells for $900, not including the cost of having your ears measured. Some companies also sell custom fit kits that can be added to the premium canalphones shown above.
Top to Bottom: iLuv i202, GlobalSat iWag, Etymotic Ety8
Wireless Earphones: As with the convertible earphones above, wireless earphones are still in a state of testing and refinement. Now ranging from clip-ons to earbuds and semi-canalphones in design, wireless earphones are distinguished from wireless headphones in that they lack headbands, but they’re not truly “wireless” in that they’re always connected to one another with one wire. That aside, you can walk 10-30 feet away from your iPod and still hear its music, a benefit over wired headsets. Because they require at least a wireless audio receiving chip and a battery, they are currently larger, heavier, and more expensive than their wired equivalents, selling for between $100 and $300 with iPod transmitting hardware, yet not delivering sound as impressive as cheaper wired versions.
FireFox Liquid Frequency (above), H2O Audio Waterproof Headphones (below)
Waterproof Earphones: Brand new to the earphone market, waterproof earphones are an alternative to the waterproof headphones that came before. The only true earbuds we’ve received for waterproof testing are the ones shown above from FireFox Technologies; they’re canalphones with silicone tips and optional convertible ear mounts if you want to use them. H2O Audio’s earlier Waterproof Headphones sell for the same $40 asking price, and use both a neckband and large rubber tips to stay in place with your ears.